That Cannot Mean That: How to Deal With Hard Passages of Scripture?

If you have been reading scripture for any length of time it probably didn’t take you too long to run across a few passages that made you think, “Did the Bible really just say that?”  There is no doubt that there are some scriptures that are hard to understand in our limited capacity.  After all, this is a book that was written ultimately by a holy, all knowing, and all powerful God.  We are none of the above.  Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”  How the trinity works, how election and predestination work together with man’s choice can all be hard things to understand.  However, there is a difference between something that is hard to understand and something that is hard to accept.  There are some scriptures that at first glance people may say, “I don’t like that,” but if we believe that “all scripture is God breathed” then God must have intended to have it in the canon of scripture.  So how are we to deal with these hard passages in scripture that we might say we don’t like?  I believe that there are several principles we should employ when reading (and teaching) these texts.  Let’s use Psalm 137 as an example . . .

By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion.  Upon the willows in the midst of it We hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, And our tormentors mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How can we sing the Lord’s song In a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth If I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem Above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, “Raze it, raze it To its very foundation.” O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you With the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes Your little ones against the rock.  

Read and teach them in their context:

If the motto for real estate is “location, location, location” then the motto for scripture interpretation should be “context, context, context.”   The first eight verses of this Psalm are a beautiful, yet sad picture of the feelings of many of the Jews who were being led into exile from Judah to Babylon.  This was a horrible time for the Jewish people.  If you read Jeremiah or Lamentation you can get a picture of the horrors of the situation.  The first eight verses fit that situation nicely, but then we read verse 9.  If you are anything like me, I was taken aback by it the first time I read it.  After seeking the Lord, and reading commentaries on it, I came to understand it better in light of its full context.  The Psalmist is not calling for Israel to do this but rather calling for justice and retribution from God upon this nation.  In reality, this would actually be merciful for God to kill the children of this pagan nation.  If he were to kill the children in their state of “innocence” then their ultimate eternity would be in heaven, I believe (Why We Believe that Babies Who Die go to Heaven – Albert Mohler) rather than the place (Hell) that many of the youth and adults will end up for denying God.  So, while it may not be a pleasant picture that comes to our minds, we can understand it much better when put into its proper context.

Read and teach them as an ambassador and not an author:

We must always remember who’s book we are reading when we read the Bible.  It is not an ambiguous book that we can just have it say what we want it to say.  We cannot read into a text what we want it to say (eisegesis), but we must take out of the text that which God intended to say in the text (exegesis).  God does not need you to defend Him, but rather to be faithful to Him. It is always tempting to try to make a hard text say something that it does not by trying to “soften” it.  Revelation gives a very strong warning about adding to or taking away from God’s word.  This is why we must remember that we are simply delivers of God’s word, and not the writers of it.  This is why study is important.  This is why prayer is important.  This is one of the roles the Holy Spirit has, to give us the interpretation of a text.  The text is God’s text, not ours.  We must always be faithful to what it says, and not try to make something up that will make you feel better about it.

Read and teach them with humility:

            When dealing with one of these hard texts it is important to deal with it with humility.  God’s ways are not our ways.  His thoughts are not our thoughts.  We need to be thankful that God has graciously revealed himself to us so as to even be able to start to comprehend the truth of who He is.  When we step back and remember that He is God, and we are not.  He is sovereign, and we are not.  He is all powerful and full of complete wisdom, and we are extremely limited in these areas.  We do not have to know everything about God to trust him and know that He is good.  When you come to a text that you just cannot wrap your mind around simply humbly admit it and ask the Lord to give you understanding.  Remember Deuteronomy 29:29 and (if He does not give you understanding) humbly say that you may not completely comprehend all the complexities of God, that you can trust that He is good, and rest in the fact that “ . . . all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

If you read scripture often you will run upon these texts from time to time.  When you do, don’t fret.  Simply read it in its full context, remember that you are the messenger and not the writer of the message, and read it with humility.  God does not need you to defend his scripture, but simply to believe it and obey it.  In doing so, you can trust in the character of the God who wrote it . . . remembering that He is good, He is just, and He is kind.  Just because we may not like what it says, does not mean that it is not for our good.  Do you remember that bad tasting medicine you had to take when you were a kid?  You didn’t like it then, but it was good for you.  When reading a text you may not like, just remember that in the end . . . it is best.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Adam B Burrell

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