Reading Psalms in context

Each Psalm is set in Israel’s story, within the macro-story of God’s kingdom.

I love the Psalms. They help me voice my hopes and struggles to God. It’s so personal: the word I is there some 800 times, about 5 times a Psalm.

But there’s a bigger story in the Psalms too. I miss that global scope of God’s activity if I treat every I as me, the reader. The very first I in Psalms is God, and he says, I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain (2:6).

In the Psalms we discover ourselves as the human community in God’s care. We present our struggles to the sovereign Lord who leads us. We celebrate his power over us, his enduring sovereign authority. At the heart of the Psalms is the declaration, The Lord reigns!

Continue reading “Reading Psalms in context”

Interpretating well

The best interpretation of what God says is to be the community he leads.

I don’t have a set of rules to give you for the science of interpreting Scripture. As every writer knows, language is not a science; it’s an artform. Well, lawyers may try to disambiguate every loophole and kill every misinterpretation, but Scripture is more like poetry communicating life. God’s life is the source and sustenance of our life together.

When we communicate, we’re not just sharing information. We’re sharing ourselves. That’s why speaking to a large group is so scary: we feel vulnerable sharing ourselves with so many.

That’s the promise and power of Scripture: God communicates himself with us. The words of life are not in the text; the text leads us to the one who speaks (John 5:39-40).

That’s how Jesus used words: The words I have spoken to you are [my] spirit, [my] life (John 6:63). And, oh my, how vulnerable Jesus felt giving us his life in this chapter!

So, two questions. How did we end up with so many interpretations? How can we do better?

Continue reading “Interpretating well”

“Eagles Annihilate Dockers In Derby”

Being aware of how we use language helps us understand each other. And Scripture.

No, that’s not today’s headline. But it will be familiar if you follow AFL (Australian football).

On 15 August 2021, Fremantle Dockers defeated West Coast Eagles (70-64). It was the first time Freo won in 12 derbies (clashes of the local teams). In one of the 2019 derbies, the Eagles almost quadruples the Dockers’ score after Fremantle went on a spree of kicking behinds: 2.19 (31) to 19.8 (122).

This language is so familiar to us that we don’t even consider that “kicking behinds” could have other meanings. But imagine a researcher in 2000 years trying to make sense of our history. Our news headlines have been preserved in a database, but they know nothing of AFL.

So, they read the headline, and consult their English lexicon for the meaning of the words. It tells them that an “eagle” is a large predatory bird, and a “docker” is someone who works on the docks loading and unloading ships. They wonder if “Derby” is a port. And there it is on their maps — on the northwest coast of Australia. Can you imagine the picture forming in their minds of what the headline means?

This is exactly the kind of problem we face when reading the Bible. The Bible is not some kind of encyclopaedic wiki on spiritual truth. It’s a record of God interacting with humans in various times and places, so it’s a revelation of God: his faithful character and unswerving purposes for us. But since it’s rooted in particular people struggling in particular settings, we cannot understand what it means if we misunderstand what it meant for them.

Continue reading ““Eagles Annihilate Dockers In Derby””

A cleansed, non-prophet kingdom? (Zechariah 13:1-6)

Interested in seeing the gospel in the Old Testament? This example from Zechariah 13 shows how to (and how not to).

Open Zechariah 13:1-6.

The ideal kingdom is a wise king with a responsive community. Zechariah’s hope is for Israel’s failed kingdom to be restored after being exiled and dominated by foreign powers. He anticipates what life could be like on that day (13:1, 2, 4).

King and kingdom are reconciled as God gives them a spirit of grace and supplication, and they respond by seeing how they hurt him — looking on the one they have pierced (12:10). They stabbed God’s heart by rejecting his kingship, giving themselves to other rulers and their gods. This has been Zechariah’s core message: Return to me, and I will return to you (1:3).

So, on that day when they turn back to God’s kingship, God cleanses the house of David — the kingship God sacked because they were self-serving. On that day, God cleanses the inhabitants of Jerusalem — the people who gave themselves to other rulers and their gods.

Based on the Torah, Israel was to be a nation under God’s leadership. Their sovereign gave them his laws and defined how to remain ritually pure in his presence. Sin or impurity could make them unclean, so he provided cleansing rituals (e.g. wash occurs 35 times in Leviticus). So when they turn back to God, Zechariah declares that God will open a fountain to cleanse his people, so they’re devoted to him alone:

Continue reading “A cleansed, non-prophet kingdom? (Zechariah 13:1-6)”

How Jesus fulfils the prophets (Zechariah 8)

With a chapter never quoted in the NT, we see how Jesus fulfilled what God promised through the Prophets.

The hope Jesus proclaimed was deeply rooted in the promises of the prophets. Matthew keeps telling us that Jesus fulfilled the prophets, using phrases from Zechariah far more than we do today.

Many of us struggle to make sense of how the NT writers used the prophets. Read Zechariah in context, and it may not sound like predictions. For example, the blood of the covenant in Zechariah 9:11 seems to refer back to the Sinai covenant (Exodus 24:8), yet Jesus used the phrase for his Last Supper (Matthew 26:28).

Maybe our understanding of “context” is too narrow. You probably know to check a few verses either side of a quotation, so as not to take it out of context. In a limited sense, that’s true. But for Jesus and the New Testament writers, context was much broader — their place in the story of God.

When Jesus announced the good news of the kingdom, his context was the Jewish world that had not been a kingdom since the exile. Most of them lived in other countries, scattered like sheep without a shepherd. That’s how Zechariah had described them 500 years earlier (Zechariah 10:2; 13:7 etc), and it still described their context in Jesus’ day (Matthew 9:36; 10:6; 15:24).

Jesus fulfilled the prophets not merely by doing some particular thing they predicted. That happened, but it was far more: everything God promised to restore was finally fulfilled in his Anointed. That’s the scope of what Jesus fulfilled: All the promises of God find their Yes in him (2 Corinthians 1:20).

So, let’s take a chapter the NT writers never quoted. How is Zechariah 8 fulfilled in Christ?

Continue reading “How Jesus fulfils the prophets (Zechariah 8)”

David’s Lord (Matthew 22:41-46)

Understanding the Bible is all about understanding the relationships. Jesus shows us how with his puzzle about the people in Psalm 110:1.

My wife loves relationships movies. She’s not looking for action scenes, spy plots, or superheros bringing everybody to heel. She loves stories that explore how people relate.

I think that’s how Jesus heard the Bible. Academics can focus on the form and structure of the text or making theology systematic, but for him it was all about relationships.

Matthew 22 gives example after example where his interpretation was relational:

  1. God’s people live because I AM. Knowing Scripture means knowing God, his life-giving power (see on 22:29-32).
  2. Loving God and loving people — those relationships are the whole Bible (the Law and the Prophets) (see on 22:34-40).
  3. To understand a Psalm, explore the relationships between the people (22:43-45).

Now, I know this isn’t how we usually read Scripture. Jesus’ approach sounded just as foreign to the Pharisees as it does to us. Can we learn the relational hermeneutic Jesus used? In this post, we’ll take the third example (based on Psalm 110) as our tutorial.

Notice the question Jesus asks:

Continue reading “David’s Lord (Matthew 22:41-46)”

The God who raises the dead (Matthew 22:31-32)

“I am the God of Abraham” proves the resurrection?

Like you, I want to understand Scripture better, so we can live it well. It matters, because we’re living in God’s story. One way to learn is to watch how Scripture handles Scripture (i.e. intertextuality informs hermeneutics).

For example, in Matthew 22:31 Jesus quotes this text to convince his opponents about the resurrection:
Exodus 3:6 I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.

Huh? How does that verse prove the resurrection? I might have gone for something like this:

Continue reading “The God who raises the dead (Matthew 22:31-32)”

Handling Scripture as Jesus did (Matthew 19:4-9)

Why did Jesus privilege some parts above others?

Disciples learn by seeing what the Master does. I especially enjoy seeing how Jesus handled Scripture (hermeneutics). Surprisingly, he privileged some parts above others.

When they asked him about applying Deuteronomy 24 (divorce law), Jesus said this isn’t what God always intended. It was a concession God gave them, because of hard hearts. He led them back to the beginning of the story (Genesis 1–2) to discover what God had always intended.

Many things in Scripture are like that — not God’s ideal. He’s managing broken people, and he has the sense to lead us step by step, not demanding everything from us at once. God accommodates flawed heroes and flawed relationships, on the way to restoring what he intended in the beginning.

Can you think of other examples where we could apply this hermeneutic?

Continue reading “Handling Scripture as Jesus did (Matthew 19:4-9)”

Reading together

Before the printing press, few people had a Bible of their own. It was a shared book. People read together. The Old Testament was the Jewish community’s story. New Testament letters were for churches. The Gospels were communal memories, reflected in the way the Synoptics use identical phrases to tell Jesus’ story.

Then the printing press gave us each a Bible of our own. Reading it as a private book, we fragmented into 40,000+ denominations. There are people in our culture who promote the notion that a text can mean whatever a reader wants (reader-response theory).

Today we tend to read the Bible alone. I bring the Bible into my private world, searching for spiritual guidance for my life. I identify each character with my struggles, glossing over the bigger story of the faithful Father who reigns across the families and generations. Almost imperceptibly, I am the centre of my universe.

Continue reading “Reading together”

Are the Psalms messianic?

Do the Psalms tell us about Jesus? Are these verses about Christ?

Psalm 22 1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? … 16 They have pierced my hands and feet.

Psalms 118 22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

The New Testament writers thought so. So did the church fathers. Were they right? Or were they bending texts to fit their beliefs? What did David intend? Does authorial intent define the meaning? Or is meaning in the ear of the hearer, whatever the reader wants it to mean?

When the church fathers used the Psalms this way, the Jewish leaders were mortified. They pointed out that no one read the Psalms like this until after Jesus died, so the Christians were merely imposing their own meaning on Jewish literature.

Should we be seeing the Messiah in the Psalms? Everywhere? Nowhere? In a few cases? What do you think?

Continue reading “Are the Psalms messianic?”

How to read Psalms

This post is longer than normal. It walks you through how to process the Psalms, with Psalm 3 as the example.

Open Psalm 3.

How do you read Psalms? We love the first one: a fruitful tree by the stream. Psalm 2 is more confronting, but we like to read about God’s anointed Son. Then Psalm 3 is about facing enemies. What do you do with that?

If you don’t have enemies, perhaps you skip it and try to find something more joyful? Or perhaps there is someone who’s making your life difficult, so you read on … until you reach verse 7. Are you really supposed to pray, “God smack them in the face and smash their teeth in?”

If you ever end up in court for punching someone, please don’t offer as your defence, “The Bible told me to.”

There is a better way to read the Psalms. They aren’t about “me and God.” You won’t get far if you approach them with the attitude, “What’s in it for me?” You need to ask, “What has this meant for God’s people before me?”

Whose voice?

Who is the me in Psalm 3? No, it’s not you, the twenty-first century reader. Who poured out this graphic lament about the enemies arrayed against him? Any ideas?

Continue reading “How to read Psalms”

Grace is a generous king (Ephesians 4:7–10)

Divine benevolence beyond imagination.

If you want to handle Scripture well, you’ll be very interested in how the New Testament writers handled the Old. What they do can seem puzzling, but it’s so informative.

Consider this example where Paul seems to misquote a Psalm: Continue reading “Grace is a generous king (Ephesians 4:7–10)”

How Jonah inspired Jesus (Matthew 12:38-41)

How did Jonah’s story help Jesus pursue his mission?

Open Matthew 12:38-41 and Jonah 2.

Why did Jesus compare himself to Jonah? How could Jonah’s story have inspired Jesus and helped him understand his mission? Continue reading “How Jonah inspired Jesus (Matthew 12:38-41)”

Why does context matter? (Matthew 12:33)

Fruitful conversations have a context. That’s how language works.

Open Matthew 12:33.

When your spouse says, “Can we eat out tonight?” what they mean depends on the context.

Perhaps you’re both dog tired, and all you want is a fresh roll from Subway before you fall asleep. But if the kids are sleeping over with friends tonight, it might mean, “I’d like some quality time with you.” Or perhaps what they mean is, “Did you remember it’s our anniversary? I’d like to celebrate our life together.”

We all know that meaning depends on context. When you’re close to someone, sharing the same context, it’s easier to pick up on what they’re saying. It is harder when the message comes from a different culture, through another language, from a bygone era, the way the Bible does. Yes, it’s harder work to hear the message as the people in that culture and time would have heard it. But it’s so worth it!

Novelists and script writers give us context to make sense of what their characters say. A good biographer takes you through the person’s words into the meaning of their life.

So we’re not making any special claim about the Bible when we ask you to hear what it’s saying in context. We’re very likely to misunderstand its message and misuse it if we ignore the context. Because that’s true of language in general, it’s true of the Bible too.

Let’s take an example. What do you think Jesus meant by this?

Continue reading “Why does context matter? (Matthew 12:33)”

Asking good questions (Matthew 8:1-4)

The questions you ask shape what you become.

Want good answers? Ask good questions.

We all bring own questions and interests and beliefs to Scripture when we read. To understand its message well, set your agenda aside for a while, bathe in the text, and let it raise questions for you.

Try it with this short story: Continue reading “Asking good questions (Matthew 8:1-4)”

The best way to understand Jesus

To understand what Jesus meant, check out what he did. His life is the best hermeneutic for his words.

Open Matthew 5:3-12.

People understand what Jesus said in different ways, but there’s one foolproof explanation of his teaching we often miss: his life. Jesus’ words interpret his actions; Jesus’ actions interpret his words.

That’s how we understand people anyway. If you suggest something and your friend says, “Oh, sure!” you look at what they’re doing to see what they mean. If they grimace and roll their eyes you interpret it differently than if they nod enthusiastically. Sometimes what we do and what we say doesn’t add up, but that complication doesn’t arise with Jesus. Continue reading “The best way to understand Jesus”

Why did Abraham plan to kill his son? (Genesis 22:1-2)

God wanted Isaac sacrificed? The things that seem incongruent to us can be our best friends: friends that help us reframe the way we think.

What would you say if a friend told you they were planning to kill their child because God told them to? I know what I’d do: after calling authorities to make sure the child was safe, I’d seek help for the person’s mental health, and then try to give them a better grasp of God’s character. So what do you do with a text like this?

Genesis 22:1–2 (ESV)
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

In the next few posts, we’ll approach this problem from several points of view. To us, it’s repulsive, but child sacrifice was part of Abraham’s world. In desperate times, people offered not merely an animal but a child to manipulate the favour of the gods. But how could this be the voice of the true God? Should we read verse 2 as if it said “Abraham thought God said …”?

This is a real problem for anyone who takes the authority of Scripture seriously. If it tells us “God said …” but we question, “Did God really say …” — wasn’t that the serpent’s deception (Genesis 3:1)?

Even if you decide, “Well, God must have said it” you’re not off the hook. Other places in the Torah describe child sacrifice as utterly detestable to God, one of the worst of heathen practices e.g.:

Deuteronomy 12:31 (ESV) (compare Deut 18:10)
You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

Jeremiah insists that God could not and would not order his people to sacrifice his children, for such an evil thought never entered his mind:

Jeremiah 32:35 (ESV) (compare Jer 7:31)
They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.

It’s also clear in the Genesis story that God does not want Abraham to kill Isaac. A few verses earlier, God told him, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (21:12). A few verses later, God dispatches a messenger to prevent Abraham carrying through (22:11-12). But even if God never intended the murder to take place, the request still seems macabre.

Some scholars seek novel solutions (e.g. J. Richard Middleton, The Silence of Abraham, The Passion of Job: Explorations in the Theology of Lament, Baker Academic, yet to be published). But it might be wiser to look back at how Israel struggled with this story. Even before the time of Jesus, Jewish people found it incongruous that God would ask Abraham to kill their ancestor, for then they would never have existed. They found a way to hear this story that I must admit sounded strange when I first read it.

The book of Jubilees was written in the second century before Christ. It’s a retelling of the Genesis and Exodus story, so it provides insight into how they thought. Their understanding was that the evil destroyer (effectively Satan) wanted to destroy the Abrahamic family, so he suggested God test Abraham to see how devoted he really was. God authorized the test, so in a sense it came from God, even though the murderous action was motivated by evil. When I first read this ancient text, I struggled to understand their perspective, since we do not conceive of the absolute authority of God in the way they did. In their worldview, anything that happened must have been God, since it couldn’t happen unless God did it.

An analogy with Job may help. According to Job 1, the evil that befell Job came at Satan’s initiative. Nevertheless, because God authorized it, they could say that God was testing Job. In the same way, God could be said to be testing Abraham, even though the initiative came from evil. Here’s how they retold the story:

Jubilees 17.16 And Prince Mastema came and he said before God, “Behold, Abraham loves Isaac, his son. And he is more pleased with him than everything. Tell him to offer him (as) a burnt offering upon the altar. And you will see whether he will do this thing. And you will know whether he is faithful in everything in which you test him.”
[James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 90]

This view turned up among the Dead Sea Scrolls too. Lines 9-11 of the second fragment of Scroll 225 from Cave 4 at Qumran (4Q225 frag 2 l9-11) reads like this:

Now the Prince of Malevolence (Mastemah) approached God and displayed his anger against Abraham on account of Isaac. And God said to Abraham, “Take your son, Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and offer him up to Me as a burnt offering …”
[Michael O. Wise, Martin G. Abegg Jr., and Edward M. Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 337]

In Greek dualistic thinking, evil and good are polar opposites that battle for supremacy. For many Christians, evil comes from Satan, while good comes from God. This is not how the Hebrews understood things. Their underlying assumption was that everything that happens must be God (otherwise it couldn’t happen). YHWH is the supreme monarch, ruler of all heavenly beings—both those that are good and those that are evil. Within this framework, it makes sense to speak of God sending an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14; 19:9), or a lying spirit (1 Kings 22:22 || 2 Chronicles 18:22).

Prior to the exile, Israel had only a very limited understanding of the powers of evil. So anything that happened—even something as evil as a plague—was attributed to God. Therefore 2 Samuel 24:1 can say that “YHWH … incited David” to conduct a census with terrible consequences. When the Jews retold this story after the exile, they now understood that there were spiritual powers behind their enemies, so they redescribed the same event like this: “Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1). So who was it? Was it YHWH or was it Satan? As they later understood it, it was Satan, but Satan is limited by YHWH, so in that sense it was ultimately YHWH.

That’s how the authors of Jubliees and 4Q225 understood Genesis 22:1. It was evil, but it was an evil authorized by God. Jeremiah is right: the evil suggestion could not originate in God’s mind. Deuteronomy is right: child-sacrifice is abominable to God. The evil idea came from God only in the sense that God authorized it, not in the sense that this is what God really wanted. That’s why God blocks Abraham from carrying through.

A brief blog post like this cannot do justice to such a complex hermeneutical point, but it does matter. If we don’t get this, we will struggle with many of things attributed to God in the Old Testament. If we don’t allow a passage like this to illuminate the difference between our mindset and that of the ancient Israelites, we will make very wrong assertions about God and his authority in other passages where it’s less obvious.

The Hebrew mindset viewed God as absolute sovereign, with complete authority over everything that happens, both good and evil. In communicating what Scripture says to people in our own culture, we must be careful not to portray God as the source of evil, for evil cannot be directly attributed to him.

What do you think?


What others are saying

John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 17–50, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 47:

A seminary colleague of mine in England, who (like me) was also a Church of England priest and served a little at a local parish church, on one occasion reenacted the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac in a family service. … Watching the reenactment was horrifying. It brought home the horrific nature of the event (though it doesn’t seem to have done the boy any harm; he grew up to be a fine, balanced adult).

John E. Hartley, Genesis, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 205:

In an episode repulsive to a contemporary audience, God commands Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a whole burnt offering. How could the God who created life and blessed humans with fertility require his faithful servant to offer up his only, beloved, son as a sacrifice? How could God ask Abraham to give up the son of promise for whom he had waited so long? On the other hand, how could Abraham obey God’s command without energetically entreating for Isaac’s life as he had done for Sodom and Gomorrah (18:23–32)? These are hard questions, and the text only hints at answers.

James has one of the most Torah-based mindsets of all the NT authors. James 1:13–17 (ESV):

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Read Genesis 22.