In Jeremiah 45:5 the Lord says to wayward and rebellious Israel:
“But you, are you seeking great things for yourself? Do not seek them.” (Je 45:5)
Ever heard that verse quoted as a proof text for being humble or for being content? If you have been a Christian very long, I am sure you have. And plucked from its context, like a cactus dug up from the desert and planted in the alpine snow, you might think it is a great verse to help you or others stay humble and content. Maybe you have used it in a Bible study or sermon for that very purpose?
Now picture in your mind one of those flashing red lights, a loud obnoxious siren, and a mechanical voice blaring over the top of the whoop and whine of the siren, “DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!” Why? Because you have entered the “danger zone” of Bible interpretation. You have forsaken the king of all Bible study principles, “CONTEXT.” When you forsake context you sin against the Lord by mishandling His Word (II Tim. 2:15). When you forsake context you follow in the historical footsteps of cults and false teachers. Taking into account the context of a verse protects you from taking a Bible verse and “using it” for your own purposes rather than the Lord’s.
If you were to write me a hand-written, ten-page letter, telling me what has been going on in your life, and if I were to go to page five, look down and see the phrase, “I was blown away!” what would that mean? The fact is, I can’t know what that means divorced from its context. Maybe you were in a little inflatable raft and were blown away by the wind from the dock? Maybe you were watching a fireworks display and it was so magnificent that you were emotionally “blown away.” Maybe there was a car bomb and you were near by and literally blown away from the car into some bushes. Without knowing the context of the phrase, “I was blown away!” I can’t understand its meaning!
Here is a SUPER IMPORTANT LESSON TO LEARN when studying and interpreting the Bible, words and phrases derive their meaning from the contexts in which they appear. When doing word studies and looking up the meanings of words in dictionaries, lexicons, or theological wordbooks, those resources give you the range of possible ways a word can be translated. They may even suggest how a word should be translated in a given text, but here is the clincher, and something you must never forget, words derive their meaning from the contexts in which they appear. The word study resource you are using might look at the context and suggest for you what the meaning should be, but words don’t derive their meaning from dictionaries and lexicons. Those resources merely give you the range of normal meanings.
Let me illustrate what I mean so you are sure to grasp it. What if you are reading Dickens’ description of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Christmas Carol:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
Consider what futility it would be to try and understand Dickens’ description of Ebenezer Scrooge by looking up various words in the dictionary. Would looking up the words tight-fisted, grindstone, squeezing, grasping, scraping, clutching, hard, sharp, flint, steel, fire, solitary, and oyster help you grasp the meaning of what Dickens meant? No. The dictionary would tell you the range of possible meanings of those words in normal prose, but here Dickens is using metaphor by the truckload. Scrooge did not operate a grindstone, was not made of flint, but in some respects was hard like flint and worked hard to make money, like a grindstone grinds away on a piece of steel. He was not an oyster, but in some respects “like an oyster.” It is only when looking at these words in their context that we understand what Dickens, the author, meant by what he wrote.
The same is true for the Bible. When interpreting the Bible we should strive to find out what the original author meant by what he wrote. The only way we can discover what is called “authorial intent” is to look at the context in which words and phrases appear. Yes, we can find out the meaning of words in general and the range of their possible meanings from lexicons and dictionaries, but we can only discover their exact meaning from seeing how they are used in the context in which they appear. Jesus said, “I am the door.” Well, look up “door” in a dictionary and you will discover that a door is a movable or hinged panel leading into or out of a room or area, or an opening in a wall. Jesus is not a hinged panel. Jesus is not an opening in a wall. But by looking at the context we discover Jesus is “like a door” in that we must believe in Jesus to enter into His heavenly sheepfold. And no, we are not literally sheep, but like sheep in some respects!
So, what is the context of Jer. 45:5? The people of Judah have sinned for many years against God, ignoring the prophets, ignoring the curses coming upon them for violating the covenant they made with God, and God’s tether of patience and long suffering has reached its end. He has promised judgment by the instrument of the Babylonians. They are going to come, capture Jerusalem, and if the people willingly surrender, they will be spared, and taken captive to Babylon for 70 years. If they resist or try to flee, the sword will devour them. King Zedekiah of Jerusalem resisted Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, and his children were slain before him and his eyes gouged out. Jerusalem is plundered, burned, and destroyed. Many died and many were taken captive to Babylon.
However, a few escape to Egypt and they take Jeremiah with them. Jeremiah warns the fugitive Jews that Nebuchadnezzar is coming to conquer Egypt and they need to surrender or be cut down by the sword. In Jer. 44 the women speak up and declare boldly they will continue to worship the queen of heaven! They will not listen to the Lord or obey the voice of the Lord. Yet Jer. 45 goes back in time a bit. Jeremiah’s prophecies are not always given in chronological order. Jeremiah often puts events that happened at different times together because they have a similar theme. In Ch. 45 the focus is on Jeremiah’s scribe or secretary Baruch. Just as Jeremiah had sorrow upon sorrow, he speaks of Baruch, who several years earlier, before Jeremiah was taken captive to Egypt, had sorrow upon sorrow. The Lord told Baruch that Jerusalem would be destroyed (Jer. 45:2-4). Then comes Jer. 45:5, our often misquoted text. God is speaking to Baruch, through Jeremiah. Baruch has just been told that the entire land of Judah will be destroyed. Then the Lord says in Jer. 45:5 (notice the entire verse is quoted this time!):
"But you, are you seeking great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for behold, I am going to bring disaster on all flesh,’ declares the Lord, ‘but I will give your life to you as booty in all the places where you may go.” (Je 45:5)
Notice Jer. 45:5 does not stop after “Do not seek them.” Yes, those who “use the Bible for their own purposes” quote partial sentences and verses as if they were the entire verse. They don’t quote this entire verse because it would destroy their misuse of it. The Lord is telling Baruch specifically, not all those in Judah, not all Christians in the church, but Baruch, that he shouldn’t make any great plans for himself because judgment is coming upon Jerusalem and the land of Judah. The verse is not talking about being content or humble, it is a specific word to Jeremiah’s grieving secretary Baruch letting him know not to seek any great things for himself, because judgment is soon coming.
Cults and false teachers thrive on misquoting the Bible, twisting Scripture, ignoring authorial intent, reading into texts ideas and meaning that are foreign to the author. Be careful to always look at the context of any text you teach, preach, or use as a cross-reference.
I have a short, but painful little exercise, which I like to perform with those in my classes or even when preaching to my congregation whenever I encounter an often misquoted text. Try giving your congregation this quiz; it is a good teaching tool. Talk about the importance of interpreting the Bible according to its context. Tell them “CONTEXT IS KING!” Speak of the cults and false teachers who ignore the context of the Bible and lead people to hell. Get them riled up a bit so they are ready to take up their pitchforks and torches against anyone who would dare ignore the context of the Bible! Then tell them to close their Bibles, turn off their phones, their tablets, and ask them about the context of some of these well known Bible texts. Ask them if they know who is speaking about what and when in these oft quoted texts:
“This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Ps 118:24)
Ask them who is speaking about what in the context? Is the verse about rejoicing every day because the Lord made it? No! The verse is about rejoicing in the day the leaders of Israel rejected their Messiah for it was on that day, a day that the Lord brought about, that Jesus made perfect atonement for our sins so we could be saved (see vss. 21-24, the context).
Here is another pretty well known text:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16)
Ask them who is speaking to whom about what in the near context and what the very near context is talking about. See if they know that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, a ruler of the Pharisees, who came to Jesus by night. See if they know that in the wider context Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about being born again, and that in the near preceding context Jesus is talking about snakes! Yes, Jesus compares a historical episode from the book of Numbers to Himself. In the story, the people of Israel sinned and God sent poisonous snakes among them so that they were being bitten and some were dying. The people cried out to Moses, and Moses cried out to God, and God had Moses make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole, so that anyone who looked in faith to the bronze serpent would not die from the snake bites but live (Numb. 21:6-9). Jesus compares that story with a prophecy of His own death by crucifixion. Jesus will be lifted up to die on the cross so that anyone who looks in faith to the crucified Savior will escape eternal judgment. I once taught a class of 250 people and very few in the class knew the near context of Jn. 3:16, arguably the most well known verse in the Bible!
How about this text?
“If my people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Ch 7:14)
This verse is misquoted all over the place. Christian book stores have this verse on plaques, pictures, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. First, it must be noted that in order to misquote this verse you have to alter the text! There are some serious warnings against adding to or subtracting from the Bible (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18). The text actually reads:
“and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Ch 7:14)
Notice that vs. 14 is half a sentence that starts in vs. 13. In the context, God appears to Solomon in a dream at night and tells Solomon that if the people of Israel sin and the curses of the covenant come upon them for their disobedience, “and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Ch 7:14) This text is about how to escape the curses and instead receive the blessings of the Deuteronomic Covenant (see Deut. 11:17; 28:21, 38). It is not a universal promise to any people or nation. It is not saying God will fulfill the blessings of the Deuteronomic Covenant on any people who humble themselves, pray, and repent. This is not to say that the texts quoted in this article have no truth and application for believers today (another blog post or book perhaps), but it is to say we must not “use” the Bible apart from its context and authorial intent.
Lesson to learn; don’t use the Bible to say what you want it to say. Don’t quote verse fragments, and whatever you do, don’t slightly alter the text to make it say what you want it to say! Let the Bible speak for itself and extract from it what God and the original author meant it to say. Remember the one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it; to that person it is sin (James 4:17).
“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 Ti 2:15)
Are you seeking to preach great sermons or teach great Bible studies for you and your people? Then I pray you do so by adhering to the context and the authorial intent of the Bible.