A great question about interpreting the Bible

A friend wrote a fantastic question on a Facebook post, what follows is my response:

THE SCRIPTURE:
The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (Psalm 121:7-8)

THE QUESTION:
What does the psalmist mean when they say all harm? At surface level, such a proclamation does not align with my experience of reality.

Excellent question, here are a few quick reflections.

All scripture must be understood in light of its genre, that is, the type of literature. A psalm is a poem, which is, by definition, condensed language. This scripture shouldn’t be read as if it was a scientific fact. E always equals MC squared (I’m told), but the truth of this verse isn’t found in the literal, definitive meaning.

For example, if the only way to discover the truth was in the literal interpretation of every scripture, then the following scripture would mean it’s impossible for the godly to be submerged in water (which would be cool for Christian water polo players and a bummer for Christian Navy Seals) or burned by fire (this would be cool for everyone):

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. (Isa. 43:2)

The only time everything is literal is in something like a scientific journal or detailed law codes…and even with millions of words to describe a thing, there is still the need for interpretation. This is why we have lawyers and courts and scientists arguing with one another.

But now I’m going way off the field, talking about things I don’t know about—law and science—so let’s return to the real problem.

If we can’t understand a scripture literally, how can we ever discover the truth? This is a slippery slope, is it not? Doesn’t this mean that everyone can interpret things however they want?

Not really. While language is flexible, it still has rules. Every word has a range of meanings. For example, STRIKE could be a type of pitch in baseball (go dodgers), or it could be the act of hitting someone, or it could be a bunch of people deciding not to work. The range of meaning is narrowed by context.

Our brains are amazing, we do this all the time constantly and we usually aren’t aware of it. When we remove the context, the meaning becomes more difficult to discern. For example, when I say “lead sinks,” what am I talking about?

The fact that lead is heavier than water or about some sinks that are crafted of lead.

Understanding a word requires understanding the sentence, the paragraph, the book, etc. To understand a word, you must “hold” the entire sentence (and as much of the greater context as possible) in focus.

Discerning a truth in scripture happens in the same manner. We must “hold” at one time, many scriptures on the same subject. This is why we must rely on the scriptures as a whole, and not just a part. When you admire a diamond, you don’t just look at one side. Instead you turn the whole thing around to see the whole thing sparkle.

At this point, we could look at several scriptures about God’s protection and the pain caused by the world. But that’s for another day.

Perhaps it would be more accurate (but less poetic) for the psalmist to write, “The LORD will keep you from all the most terrible and long lasting, everlasting, harm” … because ultimately, no matter what bad things happen to us, all (the important) things will be restored. Like Job. I don’t mean exactly like Job, it may not happen on this side of eternity, but on the other side there will be no more tears and no more death. (Ok, so I guess I just broke my rule in the previous paragraph and we looked at one more scripture).

The fact that the context mentions “evermore” supports this understanding.

But let’s back up for a moment. The psalmist is assuming the reader will still employ his or her common sense. “All harm” can’t possibly mean—literally mean— “all harm.” In the spirit of the psalm, I left that ambiguous.

More important than everything I’ve just written is the following:

WHY ASK THIS QUESTION? THIS PARTICULAR QUESTION?
It is a good thing to read a scripture and have a question. Too often we read scripture and falsely believe we understand it all. We need to pay attention to the moments when we say, “wait, that’s not true.”

What exactly does the psalmist mean by all harm…and why does this bother me? What is the HOLY SPIRIT trying to do in my life through the asking of this question?

For me personally, my mom died of cancer when I was 5. According to my dad she was a “strong believer” and even “led” three nurses to a saving faith during the final months of her illness. That’s an amazing thing, a great story. But it would be silly to ignore the fact that God allowed the harm to happen to my mother. She didn’t just die without being able to read this blog post, she was in terrible pain for the last two years of her life.

The difficulties of this world are a reality, and the Bible doesn’t hide this fact. It’s very honest about them. Sin is real. Jesus suffered. We will suffer. The Bible also teaches that God is bigger than the harms we experience (and cause in others)—at the end of time, we will be protected from all lasting harm.

ONE FINAL NOTE:
I’m a hack … all of this was a quick response … if you really want to improve your ability to read the Bible better by reading from the experts, check out this CLASSIC book: “How to read the Bible for all it’s worth.”

The Infinite Value of the Psalms

I LOVE the Psalms, but…I didn’t always love them.

To be honest: when I was a younger Christian, I thought the Psalms were a waste of space. Harsh And horrible thinking, I know. How could a person claim to love scripture (which I did), but not like the largest book in the Bible? Theologically, this amounts to believing that God didn’t know what he was doing when the Holy Spirit inspired the Psalms. Older Christians would often speak of the Psalms with a special reverence, and for the longest time, I just didn’t get what all the hype was about.

My shame runs even deeper—even after I had read through the entire book of Psalms a few times, I still wasn’t convinced of their importance. Two or three times a year, I’d get a strong impression that I needed to read/study/pray some of the Psalms. Occasionally, I’d ignore this desire, and I ended up with some pretty fruitless quiet times…so it was with reluctance that I would return to the Psalms, and God would bless my time with him—but my heart was still too hard to love the Psalms like other believers do.

Over time, this changed. There wasn’t a single moment where God changed my entire attitude over night. I wish there was, it would make for a better story! Instead, for me, it was a gradual process where I began to develop a deep love and appreciation for the Psalms.

The Psalms stand as one of the most unique books among the collection of already unique books that make up the Bible. It’s the biggest book, by far. It’s quoted more than any other book of the Bible. Although I couldn’t prove it, I bet it’s the most read.

I think the most interesting thing about this book is its dual nature. The Psalms are holy Scripture, and this means it’s God’s Word to people. As songs and prayer they are also our words to God. When you or I read from the Psalms, we are simultaneously listening to God and speaking to him. Weird, I know. The very idea of hearing and speaking at the same time calls for reflection.

If you struggle with your prayer life (I should probably write WHEN you struggle), the Psalms are a great place to turn. Praying the Psalms back to God can be an amazing experience. I often meet people who say, “I don’t know how to pray or what to say.” The solution is the psalms. There are many things in the psalms that are confusing, but human experience is universal. We all feel moments of triumph and moments of pain. We are thankful and joyful and ready to glorify God. And we also feel lonely, unappreciated, and overwhelmed. The Psalms express all of these things—and more.

The book of Psalms is a book about knowing God… talking to him honestly and authentically, listening to him, searching to find out what he’s really like. It’s a book that documents the journeys of different God-seekers by letting us in on their conversations with the Creator. Through their prayers and songs we can follow the well-worn paths they traveled as they discovered greater intimacy with the Father.

Personal Bible Study: Hebrews 5:11-6:12

Here is a simple Bible study on Hebrews 5:11-6:12: BibleStudy (PDF). It just contains the text and a few questions for reflection. Three lists to better understand this passage:

Elementary teachings

  • foundation of repentance (from acts that lead to death)
  • faith in God
  • cleansing rights
  • laying on of hands
  • eternal judgment

“Beyond elementary teachings”

  • teaching about righteousness
  • distinguish between good from evil
  • the rejection of the fallen

A profile of the original audience

  • no longer trying to understand
  • ought to be teachers
  • not fallen (or worthless)… author is convinced of “better things” about them
  • shown good work and love to God

“Impossible” in the book of Hebrews

  • 6:18–impossible for God to be false
  • 10:4–impossible for blood of bulls/goats to remove sins
  • 11:6–impossible for people to please God without faith

Outline

I. Criticism concerning spiritual maturity (5:11-14)
II. Elementary Teachings (6:1-3)
III. Warning about the fallen (6:4-8)
IV. Affirmation and Encouragement to be diligent (6:9-13)