Putting Words in God’s Mouth

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 09/01/2016

Who taught you how to interpret the Bible? I bet I can guess your answer: no one. Chances are, you were never discipled by a mentor, never took a class on biblical interpretation, and never studied a book on the subject. Like many believers (including myself), you probably adopted your own approach to interpreting the Bible. It’s almost a matter of chance whether or not we develop a good system. When it comes to God’s Word, though, isn’t it critical we strive to correctly understand it?

Let me put it plainly: Every Christian has a system of biblical interpretation, whether we know it or not. The only question is whether that system helps or hinders our ability to understand what God is saying in His Word.

This issue came up last month when I was in Cairo, Egypt. I was training up-and-coming leaders in the Egyptian church in theology and apologetics. As is often the case when I teach on hermeneutics (the study of how to interpret the Bible), I got a lot of pushback. That’s a common response among all Christians, not just Egyptian believers. Christians are generally resistant to accepting new principles of biblical interpretation, especially when those principles affect a prior interpretation of a verse they’ve cherished for years.

I understand why that’s the case. The Bible is deeply personal to us. It can be hard and painful to be told we’re misinterpreting a passage that has been meaningful to us.

That’s exactly what happened while teaching my Egyptian brothers and sisters. I was offering a warning not to claim a promise from God when it’s directed exclusively to someone else. For example, we can’t claim the promise to Abraham and expect God to make us “into a great nation” and “bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2–3). That’s a promise only for Abraham.

A few of my Egyptian friends, suspicious that one of their interpretations was in jeopardy, asked me about a promise they’ve claimed. They turned to Exodus 14:14 and told me they hold on to this promise from God: “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” The church in Egypt, they explained, is often persecuted and Christians find it difficult to stand up for their faith against a dominant Muslim culture. Instead, many Egyptian believers find solace in the Exodus 14:14 promise that not only will God fight for them, but that they don’t need to do anything but be still.

I knew the next few minutes would be painful for everyone in that room. It would be painful to them because they were going to be told that verse is not a promise to them. It would be painful for me because I would feel like the bad guy taking away a deeply cherished interpretation they’d held on to for hope. Fidelity to the inspired words in Scripture, though, is more important than making people feel comfortable.

That’s when I told them the “bad” news: Exodus 14:14 is not a promise they or anyone today can claim. It’s exclusively a promise God made the Israelites during a very unique situation: God’s people are trapped. On one side is the Red Sea. On the other side are their former captors racing at them with chariots and weapons. Fearing for their lives, Moses assures the Israelites with the promise that God will fight for them and they need only to be still. God, of course, delivered on that promise that day by miraculously parting the Red Sea and drowning the army that threatened His people.

Displeased with my response, their protests began to mount. My Egyptian friends were not happy, and I was sympathetic to their frustration. Nothing I said helped to assuage their anger. Then, I remembered the key interpretive principle: Never read a Bible verse. I quickly scanned the verses before and after the alleged promise and immediately found a way to make my point clear.

I told my Egyptian friends that if they insist on claiming Exodus 14:14 as a promise from God to them, then I’m going to claim the verse before that, Exodus 14:13, as a promise from God to me. Then I read it out loud: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.” Immediately, they began to laugh. They realized that verse couldn’t be a promise to me because chances were good that I’d return to the Middle East and would see my Egyptian friends again. That’s not to mention that I’ve already returned once a year for six years and seen many of them over and over again.

Thankfully, several of them began to see my point. It’s one we all need to keep in mind. Always read a verse in context to avoid misunderstanding and, therefore, misapplying the Word of God. Could anything be more important than making sure our eagerness to apply Scripture doesn’t result in putting words in God’s mouth?