Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Text without a Context, Pt. 1 - Dr. Bob Payne

When I was a student working on my undergraduate degree, I recall the professors “drilling” it into the heads of the “preacher boys” that “a text without a context is a pretext.” Although we as fundamental Baptists are critical of the cults when they take scripture out of context (and rightfully so), there are many who claim to have a high regard for the Word of God who do the same.

In most cases out-of-context preaching/teaching among fundamentalists is not purposeful. Many times at the root of the problem is a faulty hermeneutic, or a careless exegesis of the passage. Other times, well-meaning believers will lift a passage out of its context because of “innocent” ignorance. Perhaps they are repeating what they have heard someone else preach or teach. Although unintentional, it is still a serious error to mishandle the Word of God.

I am writing this short series of articles to emphasize the importance in hermeneutics of handling the Word of God in a contextually accurate way. The purpose of this series is not to “condemn” well-meaning fundamentalist brethren, nor is it to set myself up as the “final word” in hermeneutics. Instead, my desire is for this series to serve as a reminder concerning how careful we need to be as we approach the subject of scriptural interpretation. Whether we are preachers or not, we all need to use great care in handling the Scriptures, so that we might not violate the scriptural admonition given in 2 Timothy 2:15 to “rightly divide (handle accurately) the word of truth.” If unsaved folks can’t trust us to interpret a simple passage accurately, how can they trust us to accurately tell them about God’s simple plan of salvation?

Our day is a day of bad hermeneutics. Both preachers and non-preachers alike need to return to a diligent, careful study of God’s Word using a sound hermeneutical process. Although the main part of the hermeneutical process that I will be examining in this series is the context, the meaning of the text cannot be determined without also giving due consideration to such things as grammar, word studies, and historical background. These will also be included in our study as appropriate.

This month we will consider a commonly misapplied Bible verse…

"Where there is no vision, the people perish."
Proverbs 29:18a

I have heard more than one preacher interpret Proverbs 29:18 this way: “What Christians need today is real vision. Believers today are lacking in vision, and that is why so many are perishing and going to a Christless hell. . . 'Where there is no vision, the people perish.’” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the statement just written. The problem is the “proof text.” Both the original language and the context clearly demonstrate that this is an erroneous interpretation and application of Proverbs 29:18. The word translated “vision” has very little to do with our common, modern English definition: “Unusual competence in discernment or perception; intelligent foresight….”[1]

The BDB Lexicon defines the Hebrew word translated “vision” (hazon in Hebrew) in Proverbs 29:18 in this way: “divine communication in a vision, oracle, prophecy.” When we combine this lexical definition with the context of the latter part of the verse ("but he that keepeth the law, happy is he"), it becomes apparent that this passage is not teaching that we need to “catch a vision of a lost world.” The subject of the verse is not intelligent foresight, but revelation!

The “vision” in Proverbs 29:18 is a prophet’s vision. 1 Samuel 3:1 speaks of this type of revelation: “And the child Samuel ministered unto the LORD before Eli. And the word of the LORD was precious in those days; there was no open vision.” Derek Kidner wrote, “Vision. . . is to be taken in its exact sense of the revelation a prophet receives. Law in line 2 is its complement” (Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 175). So, the word “vision,” as well as its complementary term, "law," indicates that the subject of this verse is revelation from God.

The word translated “perish” is also often misunderstood. The term does not refer to “perishing in hell” (John 3:16). Instead, we need to understand the Hebrew word, as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 737 indicates: “‘to let loose’ in the sense of ‘to let run wild’….” The author then gives a possible translation of this verse: “‘Where there is no vision (revelation from God), the people are “undisciplined/get out of hand”.’” Delitzsch uses the words “ungovernable” and “disorderly” to translate this Hebrew term (Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 6, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon). Kidner (Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, pp. 175-176) gives a similar idea when he translates the KJV word “perish,” as “run wild.” He writes, “The verb means to let loose, e.g. to let one’s hair down, whether literally (Lv. 13:45; Nu. 5:18; ?Jdg. 5:2) or figuratively (especially in Ex. 32:25 (twice): RV ‘broken loose’, etc.).” The modern translations do a good job rendering this word as “unrestrained” (NAS), and “cast off restraint” (NIV).

The meaning of Prov. 29:18 becomes plain when the words and the context are clearly understood. The author’s message is that “where there is no prophet’s vision the people cast off restraint/run wild/get out of hand, but he that keeps the law is blessed.” Although the gift of prophecy is not in effect in our day, the modern application is obvious: when the Word of God is ignored (or not present) people live unrestrained lives. We see the sad truth of this verse in churches today, as well as in our own nation. We can only find restraint and joyful living as the Word of God is heeded!

[1] “vision.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 26 Jul. 2007.