Bible Stuff: A Text Without a Context Is a Pretext


Welcome to part two of what is now a series on the basics of studying scripture. There are so many who do it wrong. Some very famous personalities regularly take scriptures out of context to make a point they decided was true in advance. It’s called a Topical Sermon, and I was taught that pastor’s should only preach one a year, and ask forgiveness afterward. Entire cults are formed based around a single scripture taken out of context. It’s good to read the Bible. It’s better to read it and understand what is being communicated.

That leads us to our first point (in this second installment):

Start with the Text

Let the text speak for itself. We all have our pet beliefs and ideas of what the Bible says, but we must hold all of that loosely and let it go all together when we study scripture. You take meaning from scripture, not read meaning into it. Secondly:

A Text Without a Context Is a Pretext

In other words, a scripture read without thought to the surrounding verses is easily misconstrued. Each verse lies inside a chapter. Each chapter inside a Book, inside a Testament, and inside the whole of Scripture. To properly pull the truth from a scripture it must be understood within the context of the segment it’s in, the chapter it’s in and the book as a whole. When doing so we find that each book has a specific purpose and/or theme. The verse takes on a broader meaning when you realize who it was written by, who it was written to and why it was written at all.

The Best Interpreter of Scripture Is Scripture

Many people who dabble in scripture studies will grab a Bible Dictionary and a Concordance and go to work. The problem with Bible Dictionaries is they show one or two definitions for each word without thought as to the context of the word. For lack of a better example, a bull in one text could mean an idol whereas in another it’s a literal animal. The dictionary wouldn’t tell you wich. The best way to find meaning in scripture is to find other places where the same topic is covered and allow that to help you find the meaning. For instance it is impossible to truly understand Revelation without reading it along with Daniel, and vice versa. This doesn’t mean that we can run a Topical Search on BibleGateway and find every verse concerning Fear, read them, and claim full understanding of the term. Each verse has it’s own context, it’s own writer, reader and purpose. When some of those match up, particularly the purpose of the texts, you’ve got a sure fire way of better understanding and interpreting scripture.

Let’s apply some of this to today’s verse:

He who pursues righteousness and loyalty Finds life, righteousness and honor.
Proverbs 21:21 NASB

Proverbs was written by Solomon, son of David. It is a book sharing differnt proverbs (bits of wisdom). Most likely written to male students. The theme of the book is in verse 7 (If you really want to gain knowledge, you must begin by having respect for the Lord. But foolish people hate wisdom and training.). Once we have the theme of the book it is a lot simpler to understand the context of the scripture. The entire book covers the value of wisdom and begins pouring out proverbs that run the gamut.

Our chapter (21) is full of one or two line wisdom sayings. There is not a particular theme within the chapter as each proverb hits on a different topic. The general theme is still wisdom begins and ends with respect for the Lord (and his ways).

The verse says that whoever lives rightly and faithfully will experience life, rightness and honor. It uses the word “pursue” in this version, meaning to long for or work for or want. Notice that those who live rightly and loyally experience a return that is greater than the investment.

The benefits of righteousness and loyalty are life, righteousness and honor. A quick look at the usage of the word “Life” in Proverbs makes it clear that it is not a metaphor. Solomon literally means that living right and being faithful will add to your days. In other verses he mentions other traits that will add or subtract from your life. Long life is the reward of those seeking God’s wisdom.

Righteousness is defined in Proverbs as the opposite of sin. We might say then that righteousness is like obedience. We obey, we are living righteously. Righteousness is something that is done and then later reaps a reward according to Proverbs. It is sewed like a seed. Even in our verse when you pursue righteousness, you reap righteousness.

Honor is the last perk reaped by the faithful, right-living wisdom-craiver. Reading through Proverbs it is clear that honor is not self-giving. It is only available when given by others, and only after we are legitimately humble. Basically we’re finding the definition of Righteousness from the verses’ first half. We ask the question, what do we need to do right? And the answer comes from the rest of the book. We are to obey, live for God, have a humble spirit, be gracious to the needy, value correction, respect those in authority over us and more.

So after all of that I have a much greater understanding of what this verse is saying. I enjoy paraphrasing the verse (writing it in my own words) including what I have learned. Making it my own isn’t an attempt to improve on scripture it is a first step in the next phase of Biblical Studies… it’s point and purpose… life application.

The person who lives a life that honors God, in obedience, respecting authority, serving the least, humbling himself and accepting correction, (for starters) and is faithful in those things can expect a longer life, opportunities to do more that is right, and the humbling respect of those with me and He who is above me.

I hope you have enjoyed this little tour through a basic exegetical process (a fancy word that means to find meaning). Can you see how reading the Bible in this way can keep us from misinterpreting scripture? Can you see the value in finding out what the Bible actually says rather than cherry-picking verses that support our preordained conclusions? Can you see that though it’s a little bit of extra work, it’s not really hard or difficult?

Next time we’ll talk more about the importance of, and methods for, getting scripture into your self.

Read the first installment: Look At Your Fish!

Read the next part which featured the point and purpose of scripture study: Life Application

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