It seems virtually every sermon I hear in Evangelical churches these days does violence to the text. Verses taken out of context, conveniently lifted to serve some point the speaker is trying to make.
But what we never see is Evangelicals doing violence to the imprecatory Psalms by taking them out of context. Why? Probably because these Psalms are so violent.
Imagine hearing a typical pastor preach in topical style. He focuses on lots of single verses spanning thousands of years, different cultures, and different literary genres and links them to points not flowing directly from the text. But this Sunday, instead of focusing on nice verses like II Chron. 7:14, Phil. 1:6, and Jer. 29:11, he focuses on four phrases from Psalm 109:
"Let another take his office." (v. 8a)
"Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow." (v. 9)
"Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD." (v. 14a)
"And let strangers plunder the product of his labor." (v. 11b)
He then gets to the point of his sermon: we should hope and pray for harm to come to neighbors that offend us.
Why would this never happen? Sure, few people see even the whole Psalm taken in context as worthy of our sermon time, but that's beside the point. The reason none of us takes these verses out of context is because we are motivated by the graphic nature of the text to take it seriously, to consider the author's intent, the genre, the historical context. When reading phrases like these, we also reflect on the whole counsel of Scripture and remember that God is loving, gracious, kind, and just. We know God cannot sponsor indiscriminate killing or an evil intent of the heart. We rightly seek to relate these phrases to the larger context of Scripture. In other words, we are doing good Bible study.
So why is it so easy to leave these verses in their context but it's so hard not to take the nice verses out of context? I suggest that we are both lazy and prone to fantasy. We're lazy because we'd rather not do the hard work of interpretation every time we sit down to read the text. And we fantasize that God wants all of the nice Scriptures about blessing and good things to apply to us.
In addition to laziness and fantasy, we also have allowed our reverence for Scripture to lead us to believe that we need a Scripture verse to back up any idea we have. When we can't find the idea we need pre-packaged in the text, we force it into a package ourselves, lifting it out of its context, feeling very sure we are honoring God by honoring Scripture.
But we’re not. We're getting messages God didn't intend. And if we're the ones preaching, many times we're teaching bad Bible study methods, too.
Here's a crazy idea. If we want to say something to our congregations that the text doesn't say within its context, let's follow Paul's example (I Cor. 7) and clarify that we are simply speaking from our own mind. There's nothing wrong with this. In fact, we're already doing it every Sunday. Let's just be honest that we're giving people a piece of our own minds and not necessarily a piece of God's.
(Want to do better Bible study? Greg Koukl's article "Never Read a Bible Verse" treats the topic of this blog more completely and explains a very practical tool called the "paraphrase test." Sign up for Solid Ground to receive "Never Read a Bible Verse" free, along with free training material every month!)