On How Not To Read Scripture

Are you an approved workman as you handle God’s word?

Because even Spirit-filled believers are still finite and fallen and fallible, none of us of course will ever get the reading and interpreting of Scripture completely right. Nonetheless, one can either basically read the Bible correctly, helpfully and properly, or one can basically read it incorrectly, unhelpfully and improperly.

It should be the aim of all Christians to seek to be in that former category, and not in the latter. We must treat the Word of God with the respect that it deserves, and that includes learning basic principles of biblical interpretation. We must not be sloppy, careless, reckless and cavalier in the reading of Scripture.

And as I have written before, this means that we have need for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to use the brains God has given us as we apply sound principles of biblical hermeneutics while reading and studying the Bible. See here for the need to run with both: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/01/26/holy-spirit-only-christians/

I have also penned a number of pieces about the basics in biblical interpretation. See here for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/14/general-principles-of-biblical-interpretation/

We all must seek to become better students of God’s Word. That means more prayer, more humility, more teachability, and more reliance on the Holy Spirit. But it also means using the minds that God has given us for his glory, and doing some actual hard study, again, guided by proper interpretive principles and practices.

As we do this we will have less faulty understanding of Scripture, less dodgy views about what the Bible teaches, and less likelihood of moving into cultic or heretical directions. This is important indeed, as there are far too many examples of how not to read Scripture.

We see cases of this all the time, and I could offer many illustrations of this here. Let me mention just one. It is not to pick on any one individual, since it is simply representative of many others as well. But it can be used perhaps as a teaching device to help us to be better stewards of God’s Word.

Some time ago I had penned a piece on ‘the broken heart of God.’ In it I looked at how the Old Testament prophets especially spoke repeatedly to this theme. They shared this broken heart with God over the sins of the people and judgment that was due. Here are a few paragraphs from that piece:

Often the prophets spoke about their grief in seeing Israel stray from its calling and face impending judgment. It broke their hearts because it broke God’s heart. The prophet, standing in the place of God, delivered not just God’s word, but he shared God’s heart as well.

So close to the very heartbeat of God was the true prophet, that often when we read their words it is hard to discern if it is the prophet speaking or Yahweh speaking. The prophet fully shared the heart of God, and what broke God’s heart broke his heart. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/08/06/reflecting-gods-broken-heart/

However, just recently someone sent in a comment to that older article. It seems he was not happy with what I had written. Sadly he not only missed the point of the article, but he seemed to be unaware of some basic principles of biblical interpretation. His comment was this:

I’ve read God’s Word for over 40 years and have never read where it stated specifically that the Lord ever has a ‘broken heart.’ Yes the author states it in his writings but he never points to a scripture that actually says God’s heart is, or ever was broken. You may think it, and it may sound nice to sing it in a song, but God‘s heart does not get broken. He is God.

What follows is how I would have replied to him, and others like him, in this regard.

Thanks ****. But if I wrote articles with titles like “God Cares About Porn Addicts” or “God is My Rock of Gibraltar” there would be no need for you or anyone else to get bent out of shape, or to search Scripture for another 80 years. And that for three reasons: One, we can speak truthfully and faithfully about God and spiritual realities with words that are not necessarily found only in Scripture. Christians do this all the time.

Two, my article here, and my second hypothetical example both employ figurative language. To say God is broken-hearted over sin is to use a metaphor to express biblical truth. And I offered plenty of verses in my article to make it clear that God is indeed like this.

Three, such figures of speech are used all the time in the Bible, even of God and Jesus, and we should have no problems with any of that. For example: God is a rock (Psalm 78:35). God is a potter (Isaiah 64:8). Jesus is a door (John 10:9). Jesus is the bread of life (John 6:35). No thinking Christian believes that God is a hunk of stone or a worker in clay, or that Jesus is a wooden door or a loaf of bread. But all these metaphors speak truly about who our God is.

And to run with your criticism, there is a very simple reason why God’s heart does not get broken as such: He does not have one! God is a spirit, not a physical being. But again, all biblical Christians understand the widespread use of figurative language found in Scripture. As but one biblical example, Hosea 11:8 also speaks of God’s broken heart for his sinful people:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.

So are you going to chew out Hosea for saying that God has a heart? Once again, we have a biblical writer who is using metaphorical language to express biblical truth. All this should not be a problem for any Christian who is aware of this most basic of principles of biblical interpretation.

Simply consider a few other versions than the ESV that I used above:

-KJV mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together.

-NKJV My heart churns within Me;
My sympathy is stirred.

-RSV My heart recoils within me,
my compassion grows warm and tender.

-NIV My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.

-CSB I have had a change of heart;
my compassion is stirred!

-NASB My heart is turned over within Me,
All My compassions are kindled.

-HCSB I have had a change of heart;
My compassion is stirred!

All those translations speak to the idea of a broken or pained or upset heart because of the sin of Israel. So while every single one is a figure of speech, they all speak to who our God is and what he is like. So there was nothing amiss whatsoever in my article or in my title.

Sure, verses like this raise other deep theological discussions, such as the matter of divine impassability. Is God without passions? Can we speak of God as an emotional being? If so, how exactly? And are these metaphors simply just cases of anthropological language?

All that I have discussed elsewhere, as in this book review: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/07/a-review-of-god-is-impassible-and-impassioned-toward-a-theology-of-divine-emotion-by-rob-lister/

This is a large and complex topic, but let me simply offer three paragraphs from that article:

Briefly, the concept of divine impassibility has to do with the idea that God is insusceptible “to involuntary manipulation (emotional or otherwise)”. But this is not to say that God is without passion or emotion, rightly understood. God of course grieves, rejoices, gets angry, etc.

Lister explains this dual understanding in this fashion: “God is both invulnerable to involuntarily precipitated emotional vicissitude and supremely passionate about his creatures’ practice of obedience and rebellion, as well as their expression of joy and affliction.”

Or again, “while God is sinlessly, passionately, and voluntarily responsive in the economy of redemption, he is never ultimately passive, in the sense of being involuntarily forced into an emotional experience that he does not intend to have. To state it differently, God is impassible and impassioned.”

To wrap things up, last year I penned a two-part article on figures of speech and biblical hermeneutics. In it I looked at 14 common figures of speech found throughout Scripture. I concluded the article with these words:

A failure to properly interpret Scripture in general, and to be aware of figures of speech in particular, has resulted in all sorts of horrid interpretations and applications of the Bible. And that is a hallmark of cults and heretics. All biblical Christians need to do much better. We need to be good students of Scripture, and that includes doing the hard yards of careful interpretation. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/20/hermeneutics-and-figurative-language-part-two/

If there are various ways in which we should read Scripture, there are also various ways in which we should not read Scripture. It is hoped that articles like this will help us all to do more of the former while doing less of the latter.

[1523 words]

3 Replies to “On How Not To Read Scripture”

  1. Yes agreed, and God also does not have feathers! There is beautiful imagery found in Psalm 91 though: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. “

  2. Thanks Bill, I was taught to let scripture interpret scripture to help understand what is being said eg some of Daniel’s visions in 537BC help interpret/correspond with parts of Revelation as seen by the disciple John in 96AD. But I agree, it is good to get some help wherever you can and the internet has been good for me but also having a modern Bible eg Exodus 20:13 in my old KJV says “Thou shalt not kill” but my Living Bible says it better “Thou shall not murder” – which I needed to remind my leftist thinking 34yr old daughter that abortion IS mentioned in the Bible along with other pagan practices of throwing newborns into the fire.

  3. Isaiah 16:9-13 speaks of Jehovah weeping for Moab and refers to God’s belly and bowels or “soft, inward parts”:-

    Isa 16:9 On account of this I will weep with the weeping of Jazer, the vine of Sibmah. I will water you with my tears, O Heshbon and Elealeh; for the shouting has fallen on your fruit and on your harvest.
    Isa 16:10 And gladness and joy are gathered out of the plentiful field; and in the vineyards there is no singing and no shouting. The treader shall tread out no wine in the presses; I have made their shouting to cease.
    Isa 16:11 Therefore my belly shall sound like a harp for Moab, and my bowels for Kir-hareseth.
    Isa 16:12 And it shall be when it is seen that Moab is weary on the high place, he shall come to his sacred place to pray; but he shall not be able.
    Isa 16:13 This is the Word that Jehovah has spoken to Moab since that time.

    God does not write people off lightly.

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