The Importance of Context

I’d like to remind everyone that typically a single Bible verse means something very different on its own from what it means the way it’s written: with other passages around it.

For example, people often quote Psalm 50:10, the “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills” verse, to speak of God’s provision. Now, let’s look at it in context.

“Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

‭‭Psalms‬ ‭50:7-15‬ ‭ESV‬‬

So it talks about how sacrifice to God doesn’t compare to thanksgiving and living a life that honours  God and calling on His help. Nothing to do with provision.

Of course, God provides, but there are other passages that talk about that. Like this:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

‭‭Matthew‬ ‭6:25-34‬ ‭ESV‬‬

It’s always best to use passages the way they were intended.

Another example: you may have read Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Here it is in it’s fullest context.

‭‭“These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

‭‭Jeremiah‬ ‭29:1-14‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Again, saying God feels that way about us isn’t wrong. Because he does. But if we use that verse meant for Israel an apply it us, then it’s easy to doubt scripture when we don’t prosper. Context is helpful.

And I’ll conclude with a passage seen on many a selfie: Proverbs 3:15. “She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.”

It’s often looked at as the way God views the women He’s created, or a call for men to respect women. Men should respect women, but this passage actually has zero to do with women at all.

“Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.”

‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭3:13-18‬ ‭ESV‬

So it’s a passage about wisdom, not women. Though there’s plenty of examples of God’s love for His church in scripture: just look at Song of Solomon.

The last example I gave gives a false impression of scripture. That’s always the danger when you take one verse out of context. You often lose who is speaking, who they are speaking to, in what situation they are speaking in and what led up to these words. That can change the way we look at these passages completely. Just something to think about.

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