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Delight Yourself In the Lord: Command or Promise?
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Taking Your Stand on Context
Copyright © 2002, 2006 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

Allegorically Speaking

Ignorance of context is no excuse for misreading, misinterpreting, or worse, misquoting a passage. Think of the reality of this in terms of the following fanciful allegory.

Imagine a long forgotten land which was once given a valuable treasure--an irreplaceable library of ancient knowledge. An advancing army of brutes is coming to steal, or worse, to corrupt and defile the valuable treasure. As appointed Guardian of the treasure you are aware that this type of malicious raid is commonplace, but you may be ignorant of your defensive options.

Do you sell off the treasure piecemeal to prevent its harm? Do you bury it in the ground where no one will ever find it again? Those options, you determine, are a tragic waste of the treasure. No, as Guardian of the treasure you desire to protect it from violence while also preserving it and its messages intact for all future generations to study.

As Guardian, you determine a plan of action and build a thick, protective, perimeter wall around the library. Anyone is permitted to enter the wall via the castle gatehouse to read in the library, but since they must pass through the protective wall, the treasure remains safe. Safe but accessible.

Years later, a new Guardian is named in your stead as you retire. This new Guardian, having learned complacency since the treasure has never been successfully attacked through the wall, allows the wall to fall into disuse. The gatehouse is unmanned, the mortar in the stone masonry goes without being pointed up, and eventually breaches appear in the wall. One day, a single innocent looking passerby (a descendant of the original builders of the library) wanders through the wall, re-writes the messages on all the documents in the library, and leaves with no-one the wiser. Few notice, and even fewer still, care. The treasure has been lost.

In this allegory the library is the Word of God. The protective wall is "context." Context keeps the meaning of the Word of God safe from corruption and safe from various forms of intellectual vandalism.

You are the Guardian of God’s Word, not just in the allegory, but in your every day Christian walk. Every reader of God’s Word is the Guardian. Every time you, or any Christian, picks up a Bible, or a doctrinal statement, a devotional book, a sermon, a praise song, or enters into a conversation about Scripture, you are the Guardian.

Each time someone is quoting God’s Word, you need to invoke the protection of the wall, context. Ask: Is this verse being quoted completely, or is it abridged? Is the passage around the verse talking about the same thing that the person I am listening to is talking about? Do the words in the passage mean the same thing in their context that the person talking to me right now means by those same words?

Context will not protect you should you fail to invoke it; regardless of whether the failure to invoke context is due to ignorance of its ability, or due to simple neglect. The wall must be manned and maintained. You, the Guardian, must purpose to stand on the wall yourself, challenging all who might desire to rewrite the message of the library. And when your boldness falters, and the wall goes into disrepair, the potential for the most terrible interpretations of Scripture to slip past unnoticed can, and will, occur.

Using the Wall of Context in Real Life—The Apparent Quotation

Context is the reading and interpreting of fragments of the Scriptures in the light of their surrounding thoughts so as to fully understand the true meaning of the fragments. A trivial, but highly illustrative example of "keeping a passage in context" might be the following:

"One of the Ten Commandments is: ‘Commit murder’ (Exodus 20:13)"

Quoted out of context it would appear that the Bible endorses murder. Did not Exodus 20:13 say, "Commit murder"? But consider leaving the passage fragment in its immediate context of the entire verse:

"One of the Ten Commandments is: ‘You shall not commit murder’ (Exodus 20:13)"

Of most importance to note: the entire meaning of the passage has been changed, in fact, it has been reversed. A singularly simplistic illustration to be certain, yet, this is perhaps the most common form of taking a passage "out of context." Only a fragment of the entire verse is "quoted," or to be more precise, apparently quoted.

More insidious than simply quoting only a mere fragment of a verse is when an author deletes the evidence that the verse or passage has been intentionally abbreviated, thus giving the less discerning reader the impression that this is an unadulterated and complete verse, though it is not at all. When an author hides the evidence of having abridged his apparent quotation, it can be known as a "camouflaged apparent quote." [This concept will be explored more fully later in this article.]

Such lack of integrity when dealing with the Word of God might be termed "the unlawful" use of the Bible (1Timothy 1:8). It is dishonest scholarship and should immediately alert the reader that an author is being unethical with the Bible, possibly, in the worst of cases, to further an agenda that God does not support in His word.

The Apparent Quotation - - Example from a Published Book

Consider the following extract from a recent popular book where Psalm 147:11 is apparently quoted:

" ‘The Lord takes pleasure in those whohope in him.’ (Psalm 147:11)"

(John Piper, Desiring God, page 54)

If we were to take this author's "quote" as valid, we would assume that God takes pleasure in those who put their hope in Him. But notice the ellipses? Is this truly all God meant to convey? What if pleasing God required more than merely hoping in Him?

The passage actually reads in full, "The Lord delights in those who fear Him, who put their hope in His unfailing love" (bold emphasis added). Within its own context, the verse actually says that God is pleased by:

Removing "the fear of the Lord" from this verse changes its meaning. It is no longer just enough to "hope in God," but it is required that we also "fear God." Why is "fear" so important? Because we know from a careful reading of the Bible that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments; His praise endures forever" Psalm 111:10 (see also Proverbs 1:7, 4:7, 9:10).

Eliminating the "fear of the Lord" from such a passage on what pleases God is to remove the "beginning of wisdom" from the passage. And wisdom, a good understanding, is evidenced by doing "His commandments." So pleasing God requires, absolutely requires, the "fear of the Lord" as the beginning of such wisdom. For even the passages that talk about the "faith" that pleases God have at their center the outworking of that faith and wisdom in the keeping of His commandments (Hebrews 11:1-39).

Why would an author change so simple a passage as Psalm 147:11 by removing the key phrase, "those who fear Him"? Because in context it does not "prove" the author’s intended point. In fact, leaving the phrase "the fear of the Lord" in the passage contradicts the author on his personal thesis. [In this specific case, the true goal of abridging the verse was to attempt to force this verse to say that God is more concerned with providing us with happiness than He is concerned with our fear of Him or our obedience to Him--it is meant to be a proof text for the philosophy of Christian Hedonism.]

So to get the Bible to say what he wished it had said on its own, such an author will intentionally remove the key defining phrase from the verse, thereby changing its context and therefore, its meaning. Why say intentionally? Because words do not simply leap from the page to their deaths leaving ellipses as memorial markers in their places--the author is the one who must decide to do this.

The Camouflaged Apparent Quote – Another Published Example

In Dr. John Piper’s book, Desiring God—Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (1996 paperback edition), some eleven times he appears to quote Psalm 37:4. A typical example of how this verse is apparently "quoted" is shown below, which happens to be the very first use of the passage as well as the very first words in the body of the book.

"This is a serious book about being happy in God. It’s about happiness because that is what our Creator commands: ‘Delight yourself in the Lord!’ (Psalm 37:4). And it is serious because…God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy."

(Piper, Desiring God, page 9)

There are no ellipses used in this citation of Psalm 37:4 to indicate that any words or phrases might be missing or to alter the illusion that the entire verse is quoted. Earlier this was referred to as a "camouflaged apparent quote." That label denotes that Psalm 37:4 is not truly quoted in full, and more disturbingly, the author of the book chose to conceal that fact by omitting the traditional ellipses and by omitting the expected verse-fragment-marker on the verse reference. We should have expected to see the verse annotated to instruct the readers that it is intentionally meant to be but a partial quotation. One method of legitimately inserting a partial verse quotation is illustrated here:

" ‘Delight yourself in the Lord[!]…’ (Psalm 37:4a)."

By including the ellipses (…) we would know that words were intentionally left out of the verse. By using the brackets ( [ ] ) we would know that the exclamation point is not in the specific Bible translation being "quoted." And by using the verse-fragment-marker ( a ) we would know that this is only a verse fragment taken from the beginning of the verse and that something was left off from the end.

Further, we should consider the use of the word "command" as applied by the author on Page 9 of Desiring God. The author wants us to hold in our minds the impression that God has commanded us to emphatically delight ourselves in the Lord in Psalm 37:4. In the very next sentence of his book the author promises us that if we are disobedient to this apparent command, then "God threatens terrible things…" which he later defines as the curses of Deuteronomy 28 (see page 289 of Desiring God, 1996).

That is one powerful message! Powerful and terrifying, assuming that this is genuinely what Psalm 37:4 is intended to mean. The author would like us to walk away believing Psalm 37:4 essentially says, "Delight yourself in the Lord, or Else!"

But is this message God’s intended message? Is this one verse (already exposed as a camouflaged apparent quote) genuinely conveying this message now that it has been shown to be abridged? What does this verse mean when taken in its immediate context? Is Psalm 37:4 even a command?

You are the Guardian. As Guardian, how will you ever know if this is the intended message? Of course you know the course of action: man the walls and invoke the protection of context. The only way anyone will ever know if the verse is fully quoted or is being used in context is to look up the contested passage and validate it against several questions, such as the following:

Trust, Obedience, Faith, and Godly Delight—the Righteous Combination

To invoke the protection of context, it is first necessary to build the wall. Building the wall means first identifying the reason for which the poet wrote all of Psalm 37. Both the first two verses and last two verses of the poem tell us precisely and literally what was on the poet's heart: he wanted to stop fearing what evil people might do to him and he wanted to stop envying the success of evil people.

Everything that the poet writes will serve this purpose, answering the two questions: 1) how can I stop being afraid of evil people, and 2) how can I stop envying their material successes? If an interpetation of any line of the poem does not answer one of those two questions the interpretation is probably incorrect.

For example, in verse 4 we now know that the poet is not saying that God will give you any old desire of your 21st Century heart, but rather the poet is saying if your heart's desire is the same as his, to stop fearing and to stop envying evil people, then that desire God will fulfill.

If you said the "desire" was just any old thing a person wanted, then that does not fit the context of the purpose statement the poet gave in the first two verses and the last two verses. The poet does not suddenly stop discussing fear and envy to offer up the idea that God is a magic genie that grants whimsical wishes. No, the context demands we understand that the poet is telling us his desire is to stop fearing and envying and that God has a solution for any of his readers who also have that same specific desire. If your heart's desire is a sports car or to have a baby then this Psalm and this passage has nothing to offer, for those are not the desires the poet is addressing.

Now the protective wall of context is beginning to go up. We have a context for the overall poem of Psalm 37. But the wall is not yet complete. It is necessary to read every line of the poem in the context of not only its own verse but of the verses immediately surrounding it. Below several verses from Psalm 37 have been quoted as a single unit making one passage and one complete thought.

"Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him and He will do it.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light and your judgement as the noonday."

(Psalm 37:3-6)

There is now a protective wall with which to surround Psalm 37:4, the verse which appeared to be abridged. Just as importantly, the verse itself is now fully intact and can be read just as it was originally intended.

Applying our sample set of questions, it is possible to evaluate whether the implied meaning (from the abridged used of the verse) is what God intended to be the "take away" message of the passage.

Guardian’s Question 1:

Did the author of Desiring God quote Psalm 37:4 fully, or did he abridge it?

Here again is the verse just as the author "quotes" Psalm 37:4 in Desiring God, page 9.

" ‘Delight yourself in the Lord!’ (Psalm 37:4)"

Here is the actual verse quoted in its entirety, and surrounded by the verses before and after it (in its context).

"Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him and He will do it.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light and your judgement as the noonday."

Did the author of Desiring God abridge the verse without telling us? Yes, he did abridge (abbreviate) it, as the actual quote of Psalm 37:4 directly above shows. It is now obvious that the author also did not employ any literary techniques to show that he did intentionally abbreviate the passage. There is no use of ellipses, no use of "partial verse" markers (e.g."Psalm 37:4a"), nothing to tell the reader that the author has modified a verse of Scripture. Earlier this was referred to as a "camouflaged apparent quote." Camouflaged means that the abridgement is designed to blend in to all the other words so no one will notice it is but a verse fragment, and therefore it is only an incomplete thought.

What implied meaning does the abridged verse give? The implied meaning is that God emphatically commands us to delight in Him.

Yet, the verse is plainly an offer, not really a command, much less an emphatic one. It says that if we delight in the Lord then He will give us the desires of our hearts. Even that is not the end of the story. Context will reveal even more, and provide dramatic protection against an improper use of Psalm 37:4.


Guardian’s Question 2:

Is this verse used within its immediate context of Psalm 37? Does the rest of the passage support that this is an emphatic and terrifying command to delight in God lest we suffer the curses of Deuteronomy 28?

Knowing that verse four is intentionally abridged, a Guardian should assume that the entire verse is being used "out of context" as well. Lower the gate in the gatehouse and prepare to interrogate strangers, and strange interpretations, who would pass through the wall.

The broader context of Psalm 37 begins by reading verse one: "Do not fret because of evildoers, be not envious toward wrongdoers." This theme, this context of not fearing evil men and nor envying them, is carried all the way through to the very last two verses of the Psalm: "But the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; He is their strength in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in Him." (Psalm 37: 39 – 40).

And so the broader context of Psalm 37 is established: Do not fear evil men because God is the deliverer of the righteous.

Focusing in on the more immediate context of Psalm 37: 3 through 6, we find a promise to the righteous ones. A promise from God of His provision of a means of combating evil men, if we do something. We only obtain the promised provision from God if we obey the conditions of the promise, if we do our part. Verses 3 through 6 comprise a conditional promise for righteousness and discernment.

Consider this paraphrase of Psalm 37:3-6:

If we cultivate faithfulness toward God,
And if we do good,
And if we trust in the Lord,
And if we delight in Him,
Then He will give us the righteous desires of our heart (to not fear evil men, to not envy the apparent prosperity of evil doers, and to trust in the salvation of the Lord)
And He will also give us righteous lives and discernment as enlightened and penetrating as the noon sun.

In other words, context demonstrates that it is not merely delighting in God that wins for us the results of freedom from fear, victory over envy, a renewed righteousness, and bright discernment, but it is being faithful, doing good, trusting only in God, and delighting in God, all together and in unison, that are required if we are to be given this desire of our heart.

Only by reading verse four in context is it possible to understand God’s intended meaning from Psalm 37.

Guardian’s Question 3:

Is the passage surrounding verse four talking about the same thing that the person who abridged the verse is attempting to say?

Abridged and used out of context, the author of Desiring God implied that Psalm 37:4 was an emphatic command to: Delight yourself in the Lord or else suffer terrible things!

Surely context has protected the Guardian from accepting this meaning as presented. Psalm 37:4 does not stand alone, it is part of an offer of assistance, a conditional promise from God to provide righteous men spiritual and emotional aid in times of distress. The conditions for the aid are that a man have faith in Him, trust Him, do good works, delight in God, and commit his way to God’s way (God’s Word). Only until all these conditions are met does God allow that men will receive righteousness and discernment from His hand.

A Guardian who is on watch will also ask: "But discernment to do what?" Verse seven provides an answer in context. Discernment in sufficient quantity to allow a man to "Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him", to "…not fret because of him who prospers in his [wicked] way, because of the man who carries out wicked schemes."

As a unified whole, all of Psalm 37 ties together. The broader context of the entire Psalm is all about God providing discernment to not fret about the wicked if believing men will exercise faith, trust, obedience, and delight in Him. Far from being a threat or a curse, Psalm 37:4 is part of an offer of kind assistance in the face of impending danger and evil.

Guardian’s Question 4:

Do the definitions of the words in the passage mean the same thing in their context that the author of the abridged verse means by using those same words?

Recall that the original proposition from page 9 of Desiring God was:

"This is a serious book about being happy in God. It’s about happiness because that is what our Creator commands: ‘Delight yourself in the Lord!’ (Psalm 37:4). And it is serious because…God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy."

The Guardian standing on the protective wall of Context looking down intently at Psalm 37:4 discovered it is really a part of an offer of help in times of distress and not a threat of terrible things for not being happy. Still, one final test remains. Does "delight" (in its context) mean "happy"?

Here again, the author of Desiring God has constructed an error in context, logic, and word meaning. "Delight" (Hebrew "anog") as used in Psalm 37:4 has the root meaning "dainty, pliable, delight." It is generally a quiet form of admiration, and is most often used in the expression, "delight in the Lord," as if to say, "I admire God and desire to be molded and shaped by Him."

On the other hand, "happy" would have more appropriately been the Hebrew word "ashar." It is a higher level of outward emotional exuberance than delight would imply. An example of the use of "ashar" is: "Then Leah said, ‘Happy am I! For women will call me happy.’ So she named him Asher." (Genesis 30:13)

In every real sense, the premise of the book, Desiring God, which served up this real life example of a "camouflaged apparent quotation" is to establish a new philosophy called "Christian Hedonism." This philosophy, and its attendant theology, elevates the priority of one’s emotional responses and the "pursuit of pleasure" in prominence and importance over other pursuits, such as the pursuit to love God, or the pursuit to love your neighbor as yourself.

This glorification of emotion and pleasure (hedonism) is often justified on misrepresentations such as occurred with Psalm 37:4. Of course, delighting in God is part of obedience, just as joy is classified as but one of the many Fruits of the Spirit. Merely because one can find that the Bible calls us to delight in God or rejoice in His works is poor reason to declare that all life must become subservient to the pursuit of delight or the pursuit of joy.

Joy and delight are two of many things that the Lord has given us to do. He alone has established that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest is to love our neighbors. Improperly elevating "the pursuit of pleasure" above all other Christian commands and pursuits leads to false interpretations of God’s Word, false teachings, and to flawed philosophies.

No where in all the Scriptures does God threaten us with cursing if all we lack is a certain indefinable level of delight or joy, but He does threaten us with those things if we do not obey. Our outpouring of gratitude toward God will freely flow when we repent of our sins and He adopts us as sons. God does grant us the ability and the reason to be glad in all that He has done.

More often than not, God’s premium is on obedience, not emotionalism (Hosea 6:6,7). Those that love Him will obey Him (John 14:15, 21, 15:10, Romans13:8-10, 1John 2:3, 5, 2 John 1:6). Those who love their own pursuit of pleasure more than they love God may ultimately find they have lost both (2Timothy 3:4).

Let all Guardians pursue the leadership qualities endorsed by Paul in his letter to Titus.

"holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict."

(Titus 1:9, bold emphasis added)

"in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified"

(Titus 2:7, bold emphasis added)


Handwriting On the Protective Wall

When God wanted to get the attention of a king, he once wrote the warning on the king’s wall--the king gave the message his full attention. When a book contains a passage and Bible quotation as distorted as that which was just studied above, it should get the full attention of every Guardian. Something is very wrong with the message, and potentially the ethics of the scholar who would subject Scripture to such an odd twist. As a general rule, if such a distortion occurs once in a book, it will probably occur again and again. Watch carefully for it.

During the First Covenant a prophet had to be word-for-word correct if he spoke in the name of the Lord (Deuteronomy 18:20). Under the Law of Grace the bar is not quite so high, however, we must be mindful that there are trusted teachers (1 Timothy 1:11), untrustworthy but popular teachers (2 Timothy 4:3), false teachers (2 Peter 2:1), and untested teachers who are still in training (Hebrews 5:12). Any of these teachers are capable of error. Any of these teachers are susceptible to being misled. Take no one for granted. Test every teaching.

Take seriously your role as Guardian of the library, standing courageously on the wall of context which you have constructed. Soberly contemplate these warnings we find in God’s Word about the handling of Scriptures.

"Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen." (2Peter 3:14-18, bold emphasis added)

Also remember the admonition of the apostle Paul when he urged all Christians to make note of those men who not only distorted the Scriptures, but made use of them unlawfully, making improper assertions and speculations about them. Speculations arise from espousing teachings and slogans (pithy sayings) that are simply neither provable and nor disprovable from the pages of Scripture. Guardians should always keep a watchman’s eye on speculative statements.

"As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus, in order that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith.

But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.

But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching…" (1Timothy 1:3-10, bold emphasis added)

"This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith." (1Timothy 1:18,19)

A Contextual Summary of the Entire Bible

All Scripture, the entire Bible, has a context: Give whole-hearted love to God, give Christ-like love to your neighbor.

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, "you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself.". Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 8:13-10)

"And [Jesus] said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.’" (Matthew 22:37-40, bold emphasis added)

Compare any teaching or theology to the summary context of Scripture: Love God, Love Your Neighbor. If the teaching which you are evaluating seems to fall outside this grand context , it is worth taking a harder, more critical, look.

Overcome the assault on the Scriptures by demanding accurate reproduction of Bible quotations and personally verifying every verse used in a book, or a sermon, or even a song to ensure it is used in context. Accept no new doctrines without verifying every "proof text" against the very Word of God. This is our obligation, our duty, and our delight in the Lord.

For further study and a better understanding regarding how the word "delight" is used in Psalm 37:4, please read Answer 29 from our Frequently Asked Questions on Christian Hedonism.

Additional assistance is available via this audio sermon by C.W.Booth: Psalm 37 - Overcoming Fear with Faith, Obedience, Study, Delight, Good Works, and Purity

Dr. John Piper is a Baptist pastor of outstanding reputation and is also an author of significant following. Though this article uses some of his missteps from his book, Desiring God (1996 paperback edition), as examples of using Scripture taken out of context, it is in no way meant as a personal attack or personal insult. Though we disagree on the validity of his philosophy of Christian Hedonism, Dr. Piper has also written with authority and integrity on such topics as the sovereignty of God and the pro-life movement, writings that are of benefit to all who read them.

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