What Does This Verse Mean to You?—Verses Most Commonly Taken Out of Context 02: Immediate Context – How might the surrounding verses aid our understanding of a passage?

In a previous entry of “What Does This Verse Mean to You,” I introduced the subject of biblical interpretation, especially with regard to the matter of context. With the preliminaries behind us, in the following entries I want to take a look at one or more examples from each of these five different kinds of contexts Immediate, Original Language, Grammatical, Historical/Cultural, and Theological.

My first example actually serves more than one passion of mine. Besides its relevance to the issue at hand, a refutation of the improper interpretation of this passage together with a defense of the proper interpretation is crucial to the task of sound apologetics, especially with regard to the biblical case for the classical apologetics model. Isaiah 55:8-9 says “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (New King James Version)

One of the first questions to ask when anyone says anything to you and uses a pronoun is “What is the antecedent to the pronoun?” If a friend said to you “He walked right up to me, wished me a happy day, and handed me a one hundred dollar bill!” you would undoubtedly ask “Who?” To ask your friend to whom the ‘he’ is referring is to ask what is the antecedent of the pronoun. Here we need to ask the biblical text the same thing. We see several pronouns. The possessive pronouns ‘my’ and ‘your’ occur (in the English) four times each. To properly understand the passage, it is necessary to identify to whom each pronoun is pointing or referring. Regarding the ‘my’ it seems evident from these two verses themselves to whom the ‘my’ is pointing, viz., the Lord. What causes trouble for the reader is the false assumption that the ‘your’ is pointing to the reader. This seems understandable precisely because (in my experience) these two verses are almost always taken in isolation from their context. Taken this way, it seems to make sense to regard the passage as talking to the reader. Because of this mistaken assumption, this passage (again, in my experience) is without fail taken to mean something to the effect that the way God thinks about things is quite different than the way we mere humans think about things. God, if you will, has His own logic about matters. Because of this, God’s ways of doing things are quite different than ours. Extending this, the passage is then taken to be an indictment upon the ability of humans to reason about various matters.

To be sure, God’s ways of thinking and doing are not the same as our way of thinking and doing. God’s thoughts and ways are only analogous to our thoughts and ways. But it is not to any reference to the analogy of being (a technical philosophical matter) that the misinterpretation is aimed. Despite any real differences between God and man for which one can argue on the basis of sound metaphysics, I contend that the conclusions based on this passage that disparage human logic and reason are unwarranted. This is so because the passage is not making a point about human logic or reason.

Extending the context will help the reader identify the actual antecedent to the possessive pronouns. Verses 6 and 7 say “Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the LORD, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon.” Notice the parallelism. It is the ways of the wicked and the thoughts of the unrighteous against which the ways and thoughts of God are contrasted. Thus, the passage is making a point about wickedness and righteousness, not a point about logic and reason. Anyone who seeks to argue against the legitimacy of human logic and reason on the basis of this passage is misinterpreting the passage because he is ignoring the immediate context.

2 comments on “What Does This Verse Mean to You?—Verses Most Commonly Taken Out of Context 02: Immediate Context – How might the surrounding verses aid our understanding of a passage?

  1. Brian says:

    Good post, I have heard these verse used many times in order to comfort believers who have doubts. For example, one would say, my kid has cancer and I have been faithful to the Lord. I don’t understand why thus is happening. Then another would reply with these verses and say that one should just trust in the Lord. Clearly, if these verses are taken in context they cannot and should not be used for this purpose.

  2. Josh says:

    Totally agree with you on this passage. I recently wrote a post about it myself, but I’ve had someone challenge me. I’m looking for some academic resources on the passage that discuss the pericope more. I have a couple commentaries that briefly make note of it, but their comments are limited. None of my hermeneutics texts mention it in contextual discussion. I’ve checked journals (through Galaxie), but with no luck. I was wondering if you have any other references you could point me to.

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