The ins and outs of context

“David encouraged himself in the Lord his God.” 1 Samuel 30:6

I have heard many messages (and perhaps you have too?) based on a phrase just like this from Scripture. The points I could draw from this simple phrase are many and Biblical, and we could turn to other places to make substantiate what I was saying. Nevermind that I skipped the context, we could draw a Biblical principle from this passage.

If we zoom back a bit, we could look at further context and see that David’s men were looking at stoning him. Zooming out even more shows us that all of their families and goods had been stolen and their city burned with fire. Zooming out even farther, we see that David had to return from battle because the Philistines were afraid he would attack them, and we can even begin to see a possible macro view of why Ziklag was attacked. Had it not been attacked, it is not improbable that the Philistines were right and that David may have turned around to attack them anyway. But David was not supposed to be at the battle because Saul needed to die — zooming out more. Saul had sinned and needed to die so David could be king. Farther out, Saul wasn’t from Judah and Jacob said the sceptor was coming out of Judah, Saul needed to get off the throne. Shall I continue?

Look at the context of the phrase now. Context is a big deal. But sometimes, we make it a bigger deal than it is. Certainly, a proof-text without a context, can be a pretext; but not necessarily. Yes, knowing the context is important, and vital to the thought being presented, but to think that within the arguments/thoughts being spoken of by the prophets/kings/apostles/Christ there are not truths to be simply learned is to ignore part of God’s Word.

Often times, a truth can be gained from a simple statement regardless of the context. An example is 1 Corinthians 11. Paul is explaining and speaking on the matter of God ordained authority and headship. In the argument of the passage he makes the statement “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Here, Paul is not giving a discourse on hair length. But, he did provide a simple statement of fact. A rhetorical question within his argument tells us something. It tells us that nature teaches us something. Nature teaches us that it is a shame for a man to have long hair. That isn’t what the context is about, but that is a fact Paul uses within the context.

Within the same passage, Paul uses another example regarding a woman’s hair. If it is a shame to be shorn, then she should be covered. The fact he uses to argue his point, is that woman shouldn’t have shorn/shaved heads.

It does not fit to stop and argue at this point that it is not Paul’s point. True, it is not Paul’s point. Paul’s point was not to give a discourse on hair length (neither is it my point), rather his point was regarding headship and authority. But just because that was his goal, does not mean we can disregard his premises which are true. People tend to accept his conclusion, but want to ignore the facts he gave us. This is making excuses and ignoring parts of the Bible.

Another very plain example of this is within the qualifications of a pastor/elder/bishop. Each list states plainly “the husband of one wife.” The point being made (and let’s not get caught up on my particular interpretation here, since it isn’t my point), that they cannot have been married previously. No divorcees allowed. But, not something Paul is speaking out on, he states every time that it must be a man. A man can be the husband, and a woman cannot. We don’t need to know all of Paul’s context within the epistles, or even the rest of the list to know that he refers to bishops as male. As simple as that, and we know that women cannot be pastors. We don’t need to argue about submission, silence, culture, etc.

Last, rarely do we look at the big picture as big as it can be, and that is something we should do more of as well. Why did Jacob say the sceptre would not depart from Judah? We could trace it little by little, but in the end we come to the sin of Adam and Eve and the promise by God in Genesis 3:15. That is a fuller context of David’s little micro story.

Context is important. But do not come to the point in your study where context has over-ridden the simple statements, easy to be understood. And do not think that the context of a chapter or two within an individual’s life is the full context of what God is doing.


3 thoughts on “The ins and outs of context

  1. To focus on context and ignore the present statement is bad exegesis, for sure. Also, of course, is ignoring context and focusing solely on the present statement. And when I say context, of course, I do not simply mean scriptural context. Proper exegesis needs to pay attention also to historical and cultural context as well. There are specific places where statements made are clear, precise, and unequivocally state one thing and one thing only. Context isn’t that important in the interpretation of that statement, that is true. But I do think that the Holy Spirit put that clear statement in the flow of that particular passage/chapter/etc… for a reason… there was a very specific reason that statement wasn’t left out on it’s own.

    Sometimes statements are not quite as clear as they seem. Sometimes they SEEM clear because we are NOT looking at the surrounding passages. The way that Harold Camping defended his teaching that the church age is over was pulling one statement from 1 Peter 4:17 way out of context. That statement my seem pretty straight forward… but the context provides the simple statement’s meaning.

    I would encourage anyone make sure to look at context, even if a statement seems plain… JUST IN CASE it isn’t as plain as it seems. Don’t ignore the statement… but don’t ignore context either. Always, I would say, pay attention to them BOTH.

    Not sure if that is what you were saying or not… I wasn’t certain.

  2. I agree that we need to look at the historical and cultural context as well. Also, we need to look at the context to ensure that we are not over simplifying. However, I have rarely heard anything on making sure we don’t over-complicate. I was attempting to provide that other angle to the same discussion. Not neglecting the importance of context, but stressing something that I see often ignored. It sounds like we are in agreement to me.

  3. Yeah – after I posted my reply, I thought of a way that people do exactly what you are talking about… they ignore the statements in order to focus on context and end up over-complicating and often ignoring Scripture… that is when people excuse just about any and all present behaviors (that seem to be forbidden in Scripture) by saying that what the Scripture says was true THEN, because of the cultural context, but that it is different now. I hear that with a lot of things… and that struck me as skipping the statement for the context.

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