Ambiguity, Context, and Biblical Interpretation


Definitions in Context

The SAT is a standardized test that many students have to take.  One type of question in the reading section is called a vocabulary in context question.  These questions will ask the reader what a particular word in the passage “most nearly” means and it will provide four different answers to choose from.  The tricky thing about these types of questions is that, often times, all four options are legitimate definitions of the word in question.  To know which meaning of the word is being used in the passage, the reader has to read the context that the word is in, usually by reading a few lines or even an entire paragraph of the passage.  Only by looking at the context can the reader figure out which of the answer choices provides the correct meaning of the word in that passage.  Context is important in everyday life too.  If you walk into a room and hear me say “I killed that guy” to a friend, that may sound like I committed a crime.  However, if you heard the whole context, you would know that I’m talking about a video game I played earlier.  By “kill” I didn’t mean “murder,” I meant that I took out the avatar that he was controlling.  The phrase takes on a whole new meaning in your mind when you learn the context.  Context is also important when it comes to the Bible.  As many people have pointed out when teaching hermeneutics (the art and skill of proper interpretation), one must know the context of a word or verse in the Bible to really understand it.  This helps with apologetics and our personal devotions.

Context in the Bible: Apologetic Usefulness

This graphic claims to show all of the contradictions in the Bible. Here are two verses that contradict each other according to this graphic.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
(Isaiah 40:28)

Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
(Isaiah 1:14)

One verse says that God does not get weary.  The other one says that God is weary.  Is this a contradiction?

If we pretend that these passages are in an SAT test and it asks us “What does the word ‘weary’ most nearly mean in the passage?” what would the right answers be?  If, in both cases, “weary” means “fatigued,” then we do have a contradiction.  However, it is clear that “weary” is being used in different senses in each passage.  In Isaiah 40, it is saying that God does not get physically tired.  We can tell this because the next few verses say

He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

In Isaiah 1, when God says He’s “weary” of bearing Israel’s religious festivals, He most nearly means that He cannot tolerate them.  The popular English phrase “sick and tired of” fits best in this passage.  This becomes clear when we look at verses 11-13

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
“When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.

Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be if, say, an atheist used the two verses above as an example of a contradiction in the Bible when just reading a couple of verses of context reveals that there is no contradiction?  That is exactly what the graphic does.  How many more mistakes does it make?

Context in the Bible: Devotional Usefulness

There are many verses in the Bible that people use for inspiration and knowledge of God, but they may be using them incorrectly.  For example, Philippians 4:13 says “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  People often think this verse means that God will help them accomplish any goal as long as they have enough faith, like win a football game or get the girl.  However, this verse is talking about something else.  Look at the context

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me.  You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.  Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (v. 10-13)

When we look at the context, we see that v. 13 has less to do with God helping us accomplish goals and more to do with God helping us through whatever situation we are in, whether that situation is joyful or tough.  This verse is still just as inspirational and comforting when we know the context, but our inspiration and comfort is based on the truth of what the passage says instead of a misunderstanding and it gives us more accurate knowledge of God.

Context is Key

The chapter and verse divisions in our modern Bibles are very helpful for us because they allow us to find content easily.  The drawback, however, is that people tend to isolate each verse from their contexts.  Issues like this are why the popular apologist, Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason, say “Never read a Bible verse.”  This provocative-sounding phrase tells an important hermeneutical truth: one should never simply read a verse of the Bible if they want to know what it means, they should at least read a paragraph in order to understand it.  Context helps illuminate meaning.

The lesson here is clear: If you want to understand the Bible, do not just read each verse in isolation.  Reading chunks of the Bible instead of individual verses is one of the most important and simplest rules in hermeneutics.  Recognize that everything that is said in the Bible is part of a whole and understanding context can help clear up ambiguities.

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