THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT
The No-Spin Zone. Remember "Baghdad Bob," the Iraqi Minister of
Information, standing daily before the world's TV cameras during
the Iraqi War? Even as other cameras showed American forces
taking control of the Baghdad airport, the minister denied their
presence, claiming they had been utterly destroyed and driven
from the city. He was guilty of selective reporting, picking and
choosing his version of reality, while denying the bigger picture
In our electronic age, spin doctors abound, from politicians who
debate what the meaning of 'is' is, to news organizations which
show selected parts of a scene while framing off other parts of
the shot. Putting a spin on the news was particularly noticeable
during the Iraqi War, as one part of the world received
broadcasts showing the coalition forces as liberators, while
another part of the world was shown primarily scenes of civilian
casualties - the innocent victims of the coalition invaders.
Whether in the electronic media, in print, or in everyday
conversation, the simplest lie is that of omission - focusing on
a part to the exclusion of the whole. Unfortunately, this is
nothing new. The Bible has been manipulated by selective
treatment for centuries. We've all seen it done, and if we are
honest with ourselves, we've all done it - that is, taken verses
out of context.
It's without a doubt the number one mistake people make when
interpreting the Bible, perhaps because it's so easy to do. All
we need do is read a verse in isolation from neighboring verses
or surrounding chapters, and voila, the verse can mean anything
we want it to mean. After all, who has time to read and study a
whole chapter, much less an entire book! It's much more
convenient to support our viewpoint and silence our critics by
firing off a proof text.
However, when we ignore the context of a verse, we run the risk
of substituting our own preconceived ideas, limited knowledge,
and cultural baggage for the true meaning of the text. We
mishandle the Word. We muddy the waters of scriptural
understanding and mislead ourselves and others. We end up treat-
ing the Bible like the drunk treats the lamp post: for support,
not illumination. Why, then, do we, as otherwise intelligent and
sincere people, take verses out of context? How could we have
developed such a bad habit?
At least three factors have led us to a piecemeal approach to
Chapter and verse divisions have "trained" us to ignore
subconsciously the context. Instead of seeing the entire flow of
thought, we see only a series of one-liners, each with an
independent meaning of its own.
Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the way the Bible was
intended to be read. We would do well to remember that the Bible
in its original form had no chapter and verse divisions. In fact,
the first English Bible to contain the verse divisions we use
today was the Geneva Bible, published in 1560. Translators and
printers added chapter and verse numberings as an aid in locating
sections, phrases, and words. However, over the years, these
divisions have become like blinders on our eyes, artificially
narrowing our field of vision. Verse numbers continue to serve a
worthwhile purpose as locators, but other than that, they have
nothing to do with interpretation. For the most part, we should
disregard chapter and verse divisions, concentrating instead on
reading the Bible by units of thought.
A faulty assumption about chapter and verse divisions has led to
a second assumption: If each verse is an independent unit, then
the entire Bible must be like a jigsaw puzzle. It's the
interpreter's duty, some think, to take pieces of the puzzle
(verses) out of the Bible's box and arrange them into a picture.
If the pieces "fit" together in some sort of quasi-logical
fashion, these readers assume their interpretation must be right.
And, if everything "fits," then surely they could not have taken
anything out of context. As silly as this sounds, many have
assumed this is the way God intended the Bible to be interpreted.
Such an approach, however, fails to recognize that the biblical
writers, under divine inspiration, completed the picture years
ago with all the pieces in their intended places. Our job is not
to create our own pictures - to cut and paste and pound verses
into place - but to see the picture placed there for us by the
original authors and learn from their arrangement.
Line upon line:
A third reason for taking verses out of context comes from the
assumption that the Bible itself supports the idea of piecing
together verses from here and there. One verse in particular,
Isaiah 28:10, is offered as proof that this is so. In the King
James Version the verse reads "For precept must be upon precept,
precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a
little, and there a little."
Is this verse a God-given formula for interpreting the Bible? Or
is it an ironic example of a verse wrenched from its context?
Let's take a look at the context of Isaiah 28 and find out. (You
may want to read the entire chapter for yourself before
In verse 1 we see to whom the chapter is addressed: "Woe to the
crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim . . ." (Ephraim is
another name for the northern kingdom of Israel).
Verses 2 through 6 contain Isaiah's message to Ephraim: "Behold,
the Lord hath a mighty and strong one . . ." (a reference to the
nation of Assyria, which stood poised to invade the northern
kingdom). When the Assyrians attack, the "drunkards of Ephraim
shall be trodden under feet" (v. 3). But a remnant of those in
Ephraim who are faithful to God will be spared (vv.5,6).
Verses 7 and 8 offer a transition. Isaiah now addresses the
priests and prophets of the southern kingdom of Judah: "But they
also have erred through wine.... The priest and the prophet have
erred through strong drink ... they err in vision, they stumble
in judgment. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so
that there is no place clean."
The priests and prophets of Judah were no less overcome with wine
than their cousins to the north in Ephraim. The declining
northern kingdom should have served as a warning to the priests
and prophets in Judah, but they also resisted Isaiah's message.
In verses 9 and 10 the drunken priests and prophets of Judah
speak. Notice the change in pronouns. In verses 1 through 8
Isaiah uses the third person plural (them, they) to address the
drunken leaders. Now in verses 9 and 10 the drunkards respond to
Isaiah, or to God through Isaiah, with the third person singular
"Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to
understand doctrine? them that are weaned from milk, and drawn
from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon
precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there
The priests and prophets are ridiculing Isaiah in verses 9 and
10. In essence, they are saying, "We are of age. Isaiah doesn't
need to teach us anything. Are we like children who must be
tutored again in the basics - line upon line; here a little,
there a little?"
The English translation for "precept ... upon precept, precept
upon precept; line upon line, line upon line" is actually a
series of monosyllables in the Hebrew: 'sav lasav sav lasav, kav
lakav kav lakav.' There is no exact translation for these words.
They are almost equivalent to "blah, blah, blah" and represent
either the drunken babblings of the priests and prophets or the
repetitive sounds of Hebrew children learning their lessons, as
children today do while learning the alphabet. Either way, verse
10 is the jeering reply of the priests and prophets as they mock
Verses 11 through 13 offer God's reply to the scoffers. Since
they are making nonsense out of God's sense, God will truly speak
to them "with stammering lips and another tongue" (v.11). In
other words, if the priests and prophets of Judah want to hear
babbling, they will hear plenty of it when the Assyrians invade.
Then the word of the Lord will become to their ears sav lasav sav
lasav, kav lakav kav lakav (v.13a). The result will not be
positive. Rather than a formula for making the drunken leaders
better interpreters of the Bible, the word of the Lord will sound
to them like babbling so that "they might go, and fall backward,
and be broken, and snared, and taken" (v.13b).
The chapter then concludes in verses 14 through 29 with further
judgment on the rulers of Jerusalem, while also offering a
messianic prophecy of hope (v.16).
After viewing Isaiah 28:10 in its context, can we properly use
the words of drunken priests as a formula for interpreting the
Bible? The answer should be obvious.
However, lest some misunderstand, we are NOT suggesting that it
is wrong to COMPARE one scripture with another. That is a VALID
principle, as long as we FIRST understand each verse in its OWN
CONTEXT before we start comparing. It is the "Old McDonald"
method of interpretation, which pays no attention to context,
that we should avoid: "Here a verse, there a verse, everywhere a
verse, verse." Such an approach leads to distortion (Isaiah 28:10
being a case in point) because those who use this method rarely
consider the contexts of the verses they are piecing together. In
their hands, a text without a context becomes a pretext for what
they want it to mean.
1. Luke 15 and Matthew 18 contain the familiar parable of the
lost sheep. Listed below are simplified structural outlines for
the two texts. Read Luke 15:1-7, and complete the outline by
listing the verse numbers from the text that correspond to each
portion of the outline. For example, what verses contain the
setting, the comparative story, etc.? Also, write down the key
word or words from the text that identifies the content of each
section of the outline. Then do the same for Matthew 18:12-14.
A. Luke 15:1-7
1) The Setting
(the 5 W's; list as many as are present)
2) The Comparative Story (or parable)
3) The Comparison Statement
(the speaker's punch line, or application to the parable)
a) The Comparative Word
(the exact word or phrase in the text that signals that a
comparison is about to be made)
b) The Subject of the Comparison
(the exact word or phrase in the text that identifies the
comparison the speaker wishes to make)
B. Matthew 18:12-14
1) The Setting
2) The Comparative Story
3) The Comparison Statement
a) The Comparative Word
b) The Subject of the Comparison
2. Based on the outlines, what is different about the telling of
this parable in the two accounts?
3. What common interpretation is often given to this parable in
its "parallel" accounts? What is the focus of that
In Luke's account, what is the purpose or intention of Jesus in
telling the parable? What is His focus?
For Matthew's account, same questions.
4. How can essentially the same parable mean two different
things? What one feature in the texts primarily accounts for the
"When You Read the Bible Through"
I supposed I knew my Bible, Reading piecemeal, hit or miss, Now a
bit of John or Matthew, Now a snatch of Genesis, Certain chapter
of Isaiah, Certain Psalm, the twenty-third, Twelfth of Romans,
first of Proverbs - Yes, I thought I knew the Word! But I found
that thorough reading Was a different thing to do,
And the way was unfamiliar, When I read the Bible through. You
who like to play at Bible, Dip and dabble here and there, Just
before you kneel aweary, And yawn through a hurried prayer; You
who treat the Crown of Writings, As you treat no other book -
Just a paragraph disjointed, Just a crude impatient look - Try a
worthier procedure, Try a broad and steady view; You will kneel
in very rapture, When you read the Bible through.
- Amos R. Wells
INTERPRETING THE MEANING OF WORDS
What's the Word? Five-year-old Johnny, who was struggling to
learn how to read, opened up the family Bible one day and
exclaimed, "Oh, no! Look at all those words!" Like little Johnny,
it's easy for us to be overwhelmed by the Bible's words. There
are a lot of them, all right, but the real problem is in knowing
what they mean.
Words are the bricks of language. Word by word, sentences are
built to express larger units of thought. Without words,
communication would be reduced to gestures, grunts, and mumbles.
Yet, there's a downside. The words that make communication
possible can also be the source of misunderstanding. This is due
in large part to the complex way we humans use words. They are so
flexible - more like bricks of soft clay than dried mud, capable
of taking the shape of whatever contextual mold we place them
For instance, consider the following, just for fun:
What's up? I'll tell you what's up. I'm mixed up about up. When I
was a child, I was told to speak up, and then to shut up. Last
week my wife wanted me to open up the drain because it was
clogged up. Yesterday at the office, an idea came up, so our
young VP, who's up for a promotion, hit me up to write up a
proposal. Of course, he wanted it before the day was up, so he
could run it up the flag pole for the boys upstairs the next
morning. Why is it always up to me? I was tired of playing up to
this upstart. So I told him I just wasn't up to it. Because of
other projects, I couldn't take up my time to work up a proposal
ASAP without cracking up. He told me to buck up, or I might wind
up unemployed. Well, that stirred me up, so I bellied up to my
computer, which thankfully was up and running, and pulled up some
uplinks for the data I needed. When I finally looked up, it was 7
o'clock, and I suddenly remembered that I had a dinner date with
my wife at 7:30. So I phoned her up to explain the holdup about
how I had been setup, but she was very upset that I had almost
stood her up. I promised to make it up and rushed home. I quickly
got dressed up, but we ended up getting tied up in traffic for
another hour, which totally messed up our restaurant reservation.
Two hours later, by the time we lined up at the theatre for the
last show, the ticket window closed up. I pounded on the window
and yelled, 'Open up!' The manager swaggered up and said, 'We're
all filled up, so go home before I have you locked up.' Sometimes
life has so many ups and downs that you just feel like giving up.
When I woke up at sunup, I realized that I had dreamed the whole
thing up. I'm so fed up with up.
To better understand Scripture, we need to have a handle on the
nature and use of words. Two areas in particular deserve our
attention: the DEFINITION of WORDS and FIGURES OF SPEECH. This
lesson deals with the definition of words, and Lesson 7 will
discuss figures of speech.
When it comes to the definition of words, we can avoid some
common mistakes by keeping several principles in mind. First,
words have a range of meanings, but each meaning is determined by
the word's immediate context. Not all of a word's possible
meanings apply in any given verse. Choosing the correct
definition is not like ordering from a menu where we may pick the
one that suits our taste. People often make this mistake when
they're searching for a word's definition in reference books like
Strong's Concordance, which lists a menu of meanings for biblical
words. Remember, it is always the CONTEXT that determines which
Take, FOR EXAMPLE, the word 'house.' It normally refers to the
building where one lives. But it would be misleading and somewhat
ridiculous to use that definition in Joshua 24:15: "As for me and
my house, we will serve the Lord" (KJV). Here the word means
family, rather than building.
The SECOND principle is to always define biblical words by the
definitions they had in biblical times. The corollary to this
principle is to avoid the temptation of defining biblical words
with twenty-first-century concepts in mind. Remember, to remedy
those language gaps, always start with the biblical context.
Often the biblical writer will define his terminology or give a
clue to a word's connotation within the text itself. Allow him to
define his own terms; don't impose your definitions on him. If
you need more help than the context provides, then consult a
biblical language dictionary. Lawrence Richard's Expository
Dictionary of Bible Words and W.E.Vine's Expository Dictionary of
Biblical Words are helpful and easy to use.
The THIRD principle is word meanings change over time. Look
what's happened to the word 'gay' in just one generation. Since
the 1950s it's taken on a completely different connotation from
its original definition. Hardly anyone today uses the word as
those of a hundred years ago who spoke fondly of the gay (happy,
lively) 1890s. Today, if someone speaks of the gay 1990s, an
entirely different image comes to mind.
We may find it unsettling that the meanings of words change. In
fact, as we get older and more set in our ways and more nostalgic
for the old days, we may even find it lamentable, if not
downright intolerable. But we can no more stop it than we can
hold back the ebb and flow of the tide. It's the dynamic nature
of language at work. Words come and go as meanings ride the waves
of common usage. That's just the way it is and always has been
since man uttered his first words.
Because of this principle, the original Hebrew and Greek words
need to be understood in terms of their times, and the words of
any English translation must also be understood according to the
time period of that translation. As we saw in Lesson 2, this is
especially true of older translations like the King James
Version, which may use a word that we don't use anymore or use
For EXAMPLE, in 1611 when the King James Version (KJV) was first
published, the word 'let' meant "prevent;" the word 'prevent'
meant "precede;" and the word 'suffer' meant "let." Confused?
Well, let's back up and go over that again. To the first KJV
readers, the word 'let,' as used in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 meant "to
prevent." To us today, 'let' means the exact opposite: "to permit
or allow." In 1611 the word 'prevent,' as used in 1 Thessalonians
4:15, meant "to precede." Now 'prevent' means "to hinder or
stop." In Matthew 19:14, Jesus said, "Suffer the little children
... to come unto me." To a seventeenth-century Englishman,
'suffer' meant "to let or allow." Today, of course, it means "to
endure pain or loss." See how easily you can be misled if you
apply modem definitions to these older English terms?
Therefore, reading the KJV requires extra diligence because the
interpreter must decipher two layers. He must first understand
the meaning of the older English vocabulary before dealing with
the biblical text that lies beneath. Short of being an expert in
seventeenth-century English literature, how can today's reader of
the KJV avoid tripping over that version's archaic words?
First, use your ears. If a word or phrase sounds unusual or
awkward, then chances are you've hit a language gap. Solution?
Look the word up in a dictionary that includes archaic
definitions in its listings. Unless a dictionary has this
feature, it won't help you here. Second, compare the KJV wording
with an updated English version. This often helps clarify the
meaning right away. The bottom line is this: Whenever you're
unsure about the meaning of a word, don't presume; look it up.
1. Do you speak "Downunder"? It's a safe bet that most people in
the English-speaking world have heard the song "Waltzing
Matilda," the unofficial national anthem of Australia. Yet, how
many outside of that country actually know what the song is
Let's see how you do. (To those of you who may know, play along.
Don't spoil it for others.) The principles of interpretation that
are needed to understand "Waltzing Matilda" in its historical,
cultural, and literary context are the same as those needed to
interpret the Bible.
A. Based on the song's title and familiar chorus, what would you
say it's about? Who is Matilda? (Sing along, if it will help.)
Chorus: Walzting Matilda, Waltzing Matilda, You'll come
a-waltzing Matilda with me.
B. The song's four verses are printed below. Read through each
verse, one at a time, and answer the questions after it.
(Remember the five W's?)
1) Once a jolly swagman camped by a billy-bong Under the shade of
a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled,
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!"
What's a swagman? Billa-bong? Coolibah tree? Have you ever seen
What's the swagman's billy, and why is it boiling?
And most important, who is Matilda, and who sings the refrain in
line four, and to whom?
2) Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billy-bong,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,
And he sang as he stowed that jumbuck in his tucker bag, "You'll
come a-waltzing Matilda with me!"
What's a jumbuck? Tucker bag?
And who sings the refrain in line four, and to whom?
3) Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred, Down came
the troopers, one, two, three:
"Where's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag? You'll
come a-waltzing Matilda with me!"
What is a squatter? What's happening in this verse?
Who sings the refrain in line four, and to whom?
4) Up jumped the swagman, sprang into the billa-bong, "You'll
never catch me alive," said he.
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billa-bong,
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!"
What happens to the swagman?
Who sings the refrain in line four, and to whom?
And for goodness' sake, who is Matilda?
B. After examining the song's verses, now what do you think it's
about? Were your initial presuppositions correct?
C. Even though the song is in English, what kind of information
do you need to know to make sense of it?
Before having such information, where were you getting your
definitions for the words in the song?
Do we sometimes approach the Bible and its vocabulary in the same
(Note: The teacher may now share the meaning of the Aussie slang
used in the song and reveal the true identity of Matilda at
D. Recall the "three questions we must ask of every text" as
presented in Lesson 3. Which of the three is the most crucial
question to ask of this song? What is that question?
E. What conclusion do you draw from this exercise about the
meaning of words and the process of interpretation? Which of the
three principles about the meaning of words, presented in the
lesson commentary, best applies here?
2. Time permitting, let's apply the same process to a biblical
example: Amos 6:11-14. Like "Waltzing Matilda," this passage is
also a kind of song - a poetic section with four stanzas. The
text is printed below. Read through each verse, and answer the
questions after it.
v.11: For behold, the Lord gives a command: He will break the
great house into bits, And the little house into pieces.
What is the great house? The little house?
v.12: Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow there with oxen?
Yet you have turned justice into gall, And the fruit of
righteousness into wormwood.
What does "Do horses run on rocks?" mean or signify?
What is gall? What is it used for, and what does it signify?
The same questions for wormwood.
v.13: You who rejoice over Lo Debar, Who say, "Have we not taken
Karnaim for ourselves By our own strength?"
Who, what, or where is Lo Debar? What does this Hebrew word
literally mean? How does its literal meaning add irony to the
The same questions for Karnaim.
v.14: "But, behold, I will"raise up a nation against you, O house
of Israel," says the Lord God of hosts; "And they will afflict
you from the entrance of Hamath To the Valley of the Arabah."
Who is the nation that the Lord will raise up to afflict Israel?
Is there a specific nation in mind, or is this a generic
What is the entrance of Hamath? Where is it located?
Where is the Valley of Arabah? What is significant about the
location of Hamath and Arabah to the affliction predicted for the
house of Israel?
What about the five W's in terms of the larger context of this
passage? Who is speaking? Who is being spoken to? What is
happening? What's the issue? When, where, and why is this speech
A. What kind of information do you need to make sense of the
words and terminology in this text? How would you go about
getting that information? What steps would you take? From what
B. Until you have gathered the necessary information and are
reasonably sure that you understand the vocabulary of this text,
what should you do about its interpretation? What should be your
approach and attitude?
Understanding the connotation of words can be tricky. They are
chameleons, taking on the coloration of their surroundings. They
may not always mean what you think they do at first sight. To
sharpen your focus, keep these principles in mind:
1. A word may have a range of meanings, but each meaning is
determined by the word's immediate context.
2. Always define biblical words by the definitions they had in
biblical times: avoid the temptation to define them with
twenty-first-century concepts in mind.
3. Word meanings change over time. So be alert, especially when
reading older English translations. If there's any doubt about a
word's meaning. look it up.
Note: The Teacher's Guide contains additional material for this
You may obtain this whole series of studies (Basics of Biblical
Interpretation) and the Teacher's Guide, from Bible Studies for
Adults, Church of God(Seventh Day), P.O.Box 3367, Denver, CO