The Bible is Not a Supermarket
hermeneutics: n. 1. the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the bible). 2. a fancy new word that brings me no end of nerdy joy. 3. something we Christians should probably talk about.
Credit to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary for the first definition . . . not the last two.
For most of my life, reading the Bible was a distinctly personal and personalized experience. Having never been trained in theology or any proper approaches to interpreting Scripture, I did my own thing. I read the Word daily and tried to pull something meaningful from every reading—usually by following where my emotions led. If I was feeling particularly lonely one morning, for example, I might find extra comfort in God's promise to Moses that "My presence shall go with thee, and I shall give thee rest" (Exodus 33:14a).
I never saw a problem with that method. It brought me comfort when I needed it and allowed me to find something for every mood and every circumstance. But as I've recently been digging into what it really means to read and interpret Scripture, I've realized that the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, let-the-emotions-lead, take-every-verse-at-face-value method is just as ineffective and honestly, as potentially damaging as it sounds. The Bible is not a supermarket for us to pick and choose verses we're craving today to cook up something new. There are right ways of reading things. There are contexts, tones, translations, and grammar to take into account.
Take my example from Exodus. It's a great verse. I remember learning it in Sunday School, probably every year from junior kindergarten to ninth grade, and it's one of those passages that is permanently etched into my cranium for all time. I love it. I imagine Moses must have loved it, too. Especially since it was for Moses, spoken directly into his circumstances and the trials he was facing in his life.
Sometimes it's easy to overlook little things like context. It's easy to find a verse in the Old Testament or a verse that is enmeshed within a complex context and extrapolate it for our personal circumstances. Now, God can absolutely speak to us through the words He spoke to others in the Bible—but the context is still important to keep in mind even as we find encouragement in the words. Some verses, like Exodus 33:14a, are true in a sense for all Christians, granted. But what about verses like Deuteronomy 6:3, where Moses tells the Israelites that if they obey God's commandments, "all will go well" and they "will have many children in the land flowing with milk and honey"? Taken out of context, this verse might support a belief that obedience to God will equal total prosperity, always. Both the evidence of the world around us and the evidence of Scripture refute this idea, but taken on its own, this verse seems to suggest that.
This post isn't meant to belittle anyone's approach to Scripture—hey, I'm as guilty of this as the next gal and I'm still learning how to approach Scripture in a more holistic, comprehensive way! The point is that I'm learning how incredibly important it is to interpret Scripture wisely and as correctly as possible. If we're in leadership or mentorship positions, our interpretations may be used to guide others: that means we'd better know our stuff—or at least be doing our due diligence to know it as well as we can.
The Bible is perfect and beautiful and has something for everyone's needs, but we don't get to shop around for verses without thinking about why God placed them there, who they are speaking to, what they truly mean, and what they are meant to be paired with. That method may work for a while—I know it does—especially if our only concern is finding encouragement in the day-to-day. If all we want is a pick-me-up, there are countless verses we might find and even misuse for that, including verses like Exodus 33:14.
But if our goal is to know God as well as to be encouraged by Him, we need to put in the work. We need to be willing to learn, we need to be scholars of His Word, just as we need to be scholars of any subject we want to know deeply and comprehensively. I'm just figuring out what "hermeneutics" practically means and how to study God's word properly; it's exciting, it's a tad daunting, but it's unlocking the Scriptures for me in really fascinating ways. I would love to encourage you to look into this word and think about how we, as believers, can do God's Word more justice in how we approach its glorious message.