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Occasional Letters - The Importance of Context

D Newell, Glasgow

My most memorable lesson in the importance of context came through the post. It was a letter enclosing a cheque made out to me for what seemed (to an impoverished student) a phenomenal sum. My heart leapt. Some kind soul obviously understood the privations of college life and had been exercised to alleviate them! I felt like Billy Bunter at last receiving his fabled postal order. But then I read the covering letter. The money was not for me at all, but for a particular evangelistic work to which I was to pass it on. Not all cheques are for us, nor are all texts. Though every Scripture is profitable it is not all written directly to Christians. Before we can draw a valid spiritual application from any passage we must make sure we understand its primary interpretation. It is a risky thing to loose a verse from its moorings and read into it deep spiritual comfort regardless of its true historical significance. The simple rule is this: contextual reading is correct reading.

Take a common misuse of Isaiah 45.3: "I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places". How often that verse is used to teach that the Lord compensates His people in unexpected ways as they go through times of suffering. And of course He does – that is one of the unique characteristics of our God: He brings good out of evil. But it is categorically not what Isaiah means, and to imply otherwise serves only to encourage believers in bad habits of careless reading which could ultimately lead to disaster. You see, if I can rip a verse out of its Biblical setting and read into it whatever takes my fancy, how ever can I answer those folk who deny that God has a future plan to bless Israel? I can dutifully point them to vast swathes of Old Testament prophecy (such as Isaiah 11-12; Jeremiah 30-31; Ezekiel 36-37; Joel 3; Zechariah 12-14 – I am sure you can think of many more passages), but all they will do is smile and say, "Well, I believe that when the prophet writes ‘Israel’ or ‘Judah’ he means the church, and when he speaks of material prosperity he is simply describing in metaphorical terms our present spiritual blessings in Christ. After all, every promise in the book is mine". And if I am guilty of treating Scripture just as loosely, I have not got a leg to stand on. When we give the impression that it is legitimate to twist God’s Word to mean what we like (or what we need it to mean for our platform message) we have surrendered any possibility of unambiguous communication.

But what is Isaiah 45 really about? The surrounding verses are clear enough:

Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron: And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel. For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me (Is 45.1-4).

The passage is not addressed to God’s people at all but to Cyrus, King of Persia, whom God was going to use to overthrow the Babylonian empire and thus deliver captive Israelites from exile. In the process of sacking Babylon Cyrus would inherit the hoarded treasures of the Chaldeans as a reward for his service. And he did have a crucial role in God’s programme: it was Cyrus who permitted the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their temple (Is 44.28; Ezra 1.1-4). That’s the historical meaning of the section. And appropriate practical applications are many: for example, we learn that our God has the ability to foretell the future; that in His sovereignty He can use in His service whomsoever He will; that empires rise and fall according to His purpose; that even secular history is organised around the divine programme for Israel; that despite national failure Israel remains His elect people. What the passage does not teach is that God gives His people blessing in the midst of sorrow! Yes, the idea is right but the Scripture is wrong. Where then do we turn for an unequivocal statement of this truth? Romans 8.28-30 shines with crystal clarity, so why refer to a doubtful verse when a transparent one is freely available? We might also find something encouraging in Job (which, let us remember, is all about the terrible sufferings of a godly man), so Job 35.9-10 may well be pertinent in its reference to the God "who giveth songs in the night". Then again, recollecting that the psalmist often endured affliction, we should not be surprised if he too speaks of blessing amidst buffeting: "Yet the Lord will command his lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life" (Ps 42.8); "I call to remembrance my song in the night" (Ps 77.6). Of course we shall want to read the entire psalms to make sure we have understood them.

Here’s another example. I recently saw a comment which contrasted David’s words, "What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee" (Ps 56.3), with Isaiah 12.2: "Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid". The one, I was told, was good, but the other was better. That is to say, though fear may drive us to trust in the Lord, it is much more desirable that constant trust should drive out fear. Now perhaps it is because we share the same name that I considered this rather unfair on David. Remember, always put a text in its context. According to its superscription, Psalm 56 relates to David’s personal experience when, because of Saul’s persecution, he had to flee Israel and seek refuge in, of all places, Philistine territory. As he said earlier to his friend Jonathan, "truly as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death" (1 Sam 20.3). In such peril, no wonder poor David went in fear of his life! His poem is written out of the depths of genuine anguish (vv.1-2,5-6). And many of us know full well that in this present age it often takes distress to cast us upon the Lord. But Isaiah 12 is entirely different. For a start, it is prophetic, anticipating the future words of rescued, redeemed and regenerated Israel:

And in that day thou shalt say, O Lord, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation (Is 12.1-3).

"In that day", says the prophet. In what day? The preceding chapter drops the clues. There we look ahead to the glorious coming of Messiah in His role as universal ruler (Is 11.1-5), the global consequences of which include a transformation of the natural world and the nations so that Gentiles will acknowledge Christ (11.6-10), the regathering of scattered Israel (11.11-16), and their glad confession of Jehovah’s goodness (12.1-6). Therefore, when future Israel announces, "God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid", it is uttering its praise in a world under the righteous but beneficent dominion of the Lord Jesus, a world where all oppression and hostility have been removed, a world where the Holy One of Israel dwells in His earthly capital, Zion (Is 12.6; Ezek 48.35). During this magnificent visible reign over planet earth it will not be difficult to be confident in the Lord. But in a world where evil still seemed to prevail David, despite much affliction and personal failure, maintained his trust in God. And his psalm concludes with this testimony and prayer: "Thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?" (Ps 56.13). His practical example of steadfast faith is, for me at least, far more heartening and challenging than Isaiah’s millennial foreview. Isaiah may disclose Israel’s amazing future, and in that prospect we gladly rejoice, but David provides a practical model of dogged spiritual continuance in a fallen world we can all recognise. Contextual reading is not only correct; it allows us to enjoy truths that are deeply encouraging to the soul.

To be continued.


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