A Bit on Biblical Interpretation

Dear Reader,

I posted yesterday on my theory of God’s evolving relationship with His people (read it here).  Today I wanted to revisit the subject with some more practical applications.

I think there a number  of passages we tend to misinterpret or at least get confused by because we don’t understand that God’s people collectively have grown in their knowledge of Him. As we have the Bible, it is a complete document. And I do believe that all of it can still speak to us. There are not parts that I get rid of as no longer necessary. Though I will admit there are parts I read less than others. Because we have this view of a complete Bible, however, I think we have a tendency to miss the fact that not everyone in the Bible has our complete, post-resurrection understanding of God’s plan. Here is what I mean:

God’s people in the Old Testament, particularly earlier on (since the whole point of this is that there is some advancement in our knowledge of God) do not have our belief in and understanding of what comes after death. There does not seem to be any concept of heaven as a place where we will go, or for that matter even of hell as we usually think of it, in the earlier books of the Bible. Instead, the view seems to be that all people when they die will go to Sheol. Otherwise known as the Pit (Psalm 30:3: “O LORD, You have brought up my soul from Sheol;You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit”). It is portrayed as a dark place where there is no joy and none praises God. There is no idea that people may go different places based on their faith or deeds. Psalm 6:5 says, “For there is no mention of You in death;In Sheol who will give You thanks?” The Psalmist speaks frequently of being rescued from Sheol which seems to mean that he was sick unto death but God spared his life in the nick of time. His argument to God to spare his life is that he will not be able to praise God in death.

One of the passages I think is most misused because of our lack on understanding on this point is 2 Samuel 12. David has been praying for God to spare his baby’s life. When God does not, he says, “But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). Often this verse is taken as an argument that babies are saved. The logic seems to be: “We know David was saved. He went to be with God in heaven when he died. David says that he is going to join his baby. Therefore the baby must also have gone to heaven or David would not be joining him there.” I think this is a misunderstanding though of what David himself would have believed and meant. David, author of many of the Psalms, most likely believed all the dead would go to Sheol, a bad, not a good place. This is where David expects to join his son upon death. It is not that the Bible is in error. Rather, David does not have a complete understanding. The Bible is accurate in that these were David’s words. David was incorrect (or at least incomplete) in his understanding. I am saying nothing here about what I think happens to babies who die. I am only saying that I think this passage has been misused and tells us nothing about their fate. 

Another whole book which tends to cause Christians angst is Ecclesiastes. Again, I think many of our problems with it arise because we expect its author (“the Preacher”) to have our understanding of God’s workings. But he does not. The Preacher’s own understanding evolves even through the book. He has set himself the task of examining the things which have been bothering him (Eccl. 1:13), primarily that the righteous seem to fare no better than the wicked. He feels that he has been presented with a scenario–that righteousness and wisdom should lead to happiness and prosperity–that is not born out by his observations. This is a problem which most of us struggle with at some point. The Preacher still has David’s incomplete understanding of the fate of men as well: “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity” (Eccl. 3:19). So if the righteous do not always prosper in life, and they have no better fate when they die, what is the point? he wonders. The hardest part for us to take, I think, is not that the Preacher struggles with these issues, but that he does not come to conclusions that satisfy us. He fails to find much value. All remains vanity to him. The one positive statement at the end of the book (“The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.  For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” Eccl. 12:13-14) seems to be part of an addendum tacked on by a later editor. So what dow e make of all this? Is there no hope? Our problem arises I think because we expect the Preacher to have all the answers. But he does not because he cannot. Because he does not have a complete understanding of God’s plan. What he ends up showing us is not how God ultimately deals with the righteous and wicked, but how depressing and futile a view of the world which does not include  God’s grace is.

How grateful then we should be to live in a time when the complete picture of God’s dealings with His people is available to us!



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