Beware the Lonely Verse

There is something about the ‘Lone Ranger’ type of character that captures our imaginations and affections. We all like the idea of an individual being a saviour of a group of people; a person who alone can do wondrous things. It doesn’t really matter whether they are an outlawed cowboy, a disgraced royal marine, a plain and simple Joe Ordinary or a geeky scientist. As long as they are someone who saves the day they capture our imaginations and our affections.

As Christians we can often treat Bible verses (or even parts of Bible verses) as ‘Lone Ranger’ characters. We pick one or two words, or a short phrase, and hope that it will save the day – capturing both our imaginations and affections along the way.

In fact many people have based business models on this premise – promise boxes, mugs with verses, tee-shirts with verses, and so on ad nauseam.

This is incredibly dangerous as it creates fictitious divisions in the biblical material.

I almost became a culprit myself recently:

I am currently reading through Ezekiel in my daily readings (well every Thursday is Ezekiel day at the moment). Recently I came across some verses which captured both my imagination and my affection:

Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am going to put an end to this proverb, and they will no longer quote it in Israel.’ Say to them, ‘The days are near when every vision will be fulfilled. For there will be no more false visions or flattering divinations among the people of Israel. But I the LORD will speak what I will, and it shall be fulfilled without delay. For in your days, you rebellious people, I will fulfil whatever I say, declares the Sovereign LORD.’” (Ezk. 12:21-25 NIV).

Once I had finished my readings there I was ready with Twitter to share with the world my ‘Lone Ranger’ verse – But I the LORD will speak what I will, and it shall be fulfilled without delay. What an inspiration that would be for the 80 odd people who follow me on Twitter! God speaks and acts, no matter what you face today our God is going to act without delay.

However, thankfully I paused before tweeting.

Part of my Bible College training taught me to always look at the context before assuming an understanding of a verse. In other words read the verses both before and after as they will help me understand what the verse is actually saying. What I realised stopped me from posting this verse on Twitter because as I read I realised that what God was promising to do was not going to be pleasant for his people.

The proverb that God was going to put an end to was ‘The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing’ (v22 ESV). The people were mocking God’s prophet, Ezekiel. He had been delivering oracles and none of them had appeared to come to pass. Therefore, God was going to do something to end this oracle. God was going to send his people into Exile (v3; 11). The prediction that was going to come to pass was God’s people being taken from their Promised Land to live in a foreign land. Judgement was the great word that would be fulfilled without delay.

bible-verse-575231-mThis is not so encouraging when you are having a bad day! All of a sudden rather than a ‘Lone Ranger’ verse it became a lonely verse, stripped of its context and therefore its meaning.

While there are numerous other examples I could highlight, I will limit myself to two more.

I remember Matt Chandler humorously telling the story about an entire youth camp that had failed to understand the context in which their ‘Lone Ranger’ verse was found. All of the young people on the youth camp wore matching tee-shirts with the ‘wonderful’ promise from Habakkuk 1:5, ‘For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told’ (ESV). What a promise!

However, if we read Habakkuk chapter 1 we soon find that we would not be so keen for our children to be wearing these tee-shirts, sporting this promise. Habakkuk opens the chapter with unanswered prayers and facing terrible hardship in the difficult political climate that Israel found themselves in. He opens ‘O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?’ (1:2 ESV).

God’s answer is that he is doing a work that Habakkuk would not believe if he was told – he is going to send the most violent and vicious army to punish his rebellious people:

“’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.’” (Hab. 1:6 ESV).

The Chaldeans are not what you want coming over the hill to visit your young people during their camp. It is no longer a ‘Lone Ranger’ verse but a lonely verse, stripped of its context and therefore its meaning.

Finally, I want to very briefly tackle the most famous of lonely verses, Jeremiah 29:11. It seems that almost any Christian who gets five minutes at the front of a church service quotes this verse, ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope’ (29:11 ESV). “God has prosperous plans for his people” is usually the point made, and funnily enough it is almost right. But, there is a certain nuance to this verse that is often missed.

Jeremiah 29 is a letter sent from the prophet to God’s people in exile (remember exile is a punishment/judgement from God, see Ezekiel above) (Jer. 29:1). The people are then told to settle down in this foreign land – they aren’t coming home any time soon (v5-6)! This is a startling thing for God’s people to hear from God. God is meant to rescue his people by crushing their enemies so they can return to their homes in the Promised Land. Instead, God tells them he is leaving them in Babylon for the foreseeable future. However, he has not abandoned them but is going to bless them in Babylon – the land of exile (punishment)!

God does bless his people, with specific plans and circumstance he uses for our welfare – but often they are not in line with our plans.

Once again we have found a lonely verse, stripped of its context and therefore its meaning.

So, beware the lonely verse. Don’t get caught out encouraging your brothers and sisters with exile, or your young people with murder and pillage, or your church with circumstances they wouldn’t choose for themselves!

Inevitably there will be the question ‘how?’ How do we avoid the lonely verse?

This is not fool proof, but here are three brief tips:

  1. Don’t read a verse a day

I have often heard older Christians encourage younger Christians to read a verse a day. Get started with small steps, build them up and then worry about reading whole chapters after that.

The advice has the right sentiment, but is ultimately an unhelpful way to teach younger Christians (or any Christian for that matter) how to read their Bible. Our Bible was not written in small chunks – it was written in sentences, paragraphs and literary units.

Don’t read a verse a day.

  1. Do read chunks of the Bible

The way to remedy a-verse-a-day is to read a chunk a day.

Now this will not totally protect you (as I read Ezekiel that morning I was reading three chapters but still managed to seek out a single verse), but it will begin to imprint in your mind that the Bible should ultimately be understood in chunks.

Some Bibles helpfully break the passages into smaller sections with subtitles. Although these aren’t always well chosen chunks, they are somewhere to begin. The same with chapter divisions; reading a chapter a day would be good, but sometimes the flow of thought crosses the chapter division.

Read chunks of the Bible daily (or at least regularly).

  1. Read consecutively

Finally, read consecutively.

By this I mean read right through books of the Bible, from beginning to end. In doing this we not only see what the chunks of the book say, but also what the book as a whole says.

If you are a good reader you could maybe read books of the Bible in one sitting (although that certainly isn’t possible for all of them, Isaiah has 66 chapters and some are really long).

One way in which I find myself helped to do this is by reading the Bible right through in a year (or maybe two). However, this is not the reading method for everyone. Nor do the books of the Bible need to be read in the order we have them in our Bible.

Nevertheless, reading consecutively through books of the Bible helps to protect us from stripping verses of their context and therefore their meaning.

None of us are immune from this danger, but if we remember the warning to ‘beware of the lonely verse’ by God’s grace we will be protected from wrongly encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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