I used to think the Bible was pretty easy to read. That was when I was young and thought I knew it all. Now I’m older, and I realize I’m pretty clueless!
Take prophesy, for example. As I read through books such as Hosea, Micah and Amos, the prophesies seem pretty clear cut: the Israelites have history with God. They’re messing up. God is distraught. God is warning them to return to him before the bad guys get them. And then he warns the bad guys that he’s going to judge them, too.
Granted, other prophetic books—Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation—are totally mystifying, but that’s because they haven’t all happened yet. When the time comes, it will all make sense. Isn’t that how prophesy works?
Recently God told me to read Matthew. I cruised through the genealogies, read about Mary and Joseph, the Magi and King Herod. When Herod asks the priests and teachers where the Messiah was to be born, they correctly answer Bethlehem, citing Micah 5:2. So far, so good.
Then comes the part where Jesus escapes to Egypt, staying there until the death of Herod. Matthew shows how this fulfilled Hosea 11:1—“Out of Egypt I called my son.” So I went and looked up Hosea 11:1. Oh, my. There is no way I would have guessed that this was a prophetic passage. The context in Hosea is historical, referring to God rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. You know, a long, long time before Jesus was born.
I began to wonder how many other verses have such double (or more) meanings. Is there any way to recognize them? How can we tell which prophesies have been completely fulfilled, which ones have not, and which ones apply to our current situation? I always thought context was key. After all, many Bible scholars seem to limit a verse’s application to the context in which it appears. But the writers of the New Testament don’t restrict themselves in this way. For example:
- In Acts 1:20, Peter quotes Psalms 69:25 and 109:8—“May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,” and, “May another take his place of leadership.”I looked up these psalms. The context in both cases is that of David praying for God to curse his enemies! How in the world did Peter pull these verses out to apply to replacing Judas with another apostle?
- Or how about Hebrews 2:12? To prove that we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, the author quotes Psalm 22:22, “I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.” Yet David is promising that if God will only rescue him from his enemies, he will praise God in front of the people. The context gives a totally different interpretation.
So I admit, I’m confused. Does context matter at all?
Recently, a lot of believers have been quoting Habakkuk in an effort to encourage the church. Verse 1:5 reads:
Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.
The problem is that if you read the rest of the chapter, you discover that this “something” is actually the Babylonians, coming to attack the Israelites in response to their disobedience! Is it legitimate to refer to this verse out of context, offering it as a blessing instead of a curse?
I think Peter had it right when he commented (in 2 Peter 1:20):
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.
It seems that we can’t know, apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.