Do you ever try to form a phrase out of license plate letters?
The other day, my roommate John and I were driving behind a car with the letters “NHF” in his license plate. I first interpreted the “acronym” as “National Hockey Federation.” John and I spent the next few minutes trying to think up other possibilities until we landed on “Nevertheless, Harrison Ford.” We laughed, deciding that we should sign our next letter or email this way (and that the actor would be missing out if he didn’t sign all of his letters in this way).
There’s a problem with our interpretation, however: the three letters don’t actually stand for anything. The license plate was simply a few letters and numbers in a series; there’s no deeper meaning. Trying to read meaning into the letters was fun, but it was nothing more than a game.
I think we can sometimes read Scripture in the same way as John and I read the license plate. We read our own understanding into a text rather than drawing the true meaning out of a text. A common example is Philippians 4:13, where Paul writes, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” I once heard of a young man who would recall this verse before high school football games to encourage him. He trusted that God would help his team win the victory as they trusted in this promise. One day, a troubling thought struck him: “What if the other team was recalling this verse as well?” In context, the verse has nothing to do with football. Instead, Paul is describing how he learned, through Christ, how to live in any circumstance, whether he had much or little. The point of the story is that context matters. Paul’s words here aren’t meant to magically summon the power of God for our own goals, but are rather meant as testimony to God’s sustaining power through all circumstances.
Another good example is Habakkuk 1:5. There, God says, “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” I’ve heard this verse used to comfort the hurting. When someone faces a difficult season of life and begins to lose hope, a well-meaning friend might quote this verse to encourage their friend to trust that God is doing more than we can see. The issue here comes in the context again. Starting in the next verse, God continues:
“For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
The message is not necessarily as comforting as might be expected. Again, context matters.
So what do we do? First, we pray for wisdom as we read God’s word to see what’s actually going on. Second, we read the full text, not just pieces of the text. Third, we consult pastors, teachers, and good books to learn more about the text in its context. The Word of God is a beautiful thing, and God uses it to mold and shape us. Let us never treat it lightly. Let us seek to be good students of the Word, hiding it in our hearts to better follow our Lord. And let us praise God that he is not a God of mystery, but of truth. He invites us to know him; let’s study well.