For both the Spring semester and Summer School (which just concluded today at BCM), I had the privilege of teaching Hermeneutics to a total of 25-30 students. I had a fabulous time! The student's were very engaged with the topic, and I can think of only one other class that I could possibly be more excited about (1 Peter). Our main textbook was Duvall and Hayes' Grasping God's Word, with Sire's Scripture Twisting as also required reading.
As I stress with my students, properly studying the context of any passage remains essential. Even Proverbs—possibly the one book in the Bible where you could grab a couple verses and not be too concerned about what precedes and follows—even in Proverbs the reader must understand the ongoing conflict between "Lady Wisdom" versus the "Strange Woman," as well as how the entire book must be read in light of 1:7.
A perfect example of the importance of context is in how well-meaning Christians quote Psalm 11:3—"Boy, this country [or church, or society, or local coffee shop] sure is going downhill fast! You know, if the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" Indeed, how many messages have been preached with that as the tagline, generally focusing on what the "foundations" are and how we need to get back to whatever they are?
Friend, if we truly pay attention to what Scripture is saying, you'll understand that true believers are not supposed to be saying "if the foundations be destroyed . . ." Consider the entire Psalm. In verse 1, we have the basic theme: David trusts in the Lord. Then, immediately following, we have discordant voice introduced: that of "Naysayers," the ones who wish David to abandon hope and join them in their doom and gloom philosophy. "Flee to the mountains," they say. With parallelism in verse 2—"The wicked are bending their bow, they're getting ready to shoot!" Why? "To shoot at the righteous."
Here's the key—the "Naysayers" are still talking in verse 3! In other words, verse 3 is not the theme of the Psalm, the message we should take to heart. Rather, verse 3, "If the foundations be destroyed . . ." is the very statement David (and the Psalm) rebukes!
The (perhaps well-meaning) "Naysayers," then, are bemoaning the fact that everything's crumbling, and they've thrown up their hands in despair—"It's too late! The foundations are destroyed! What can good people do about it?"
Listen to King David's rebuke—"The Lord is in his holy temple, his throne is in the heavens, God's eyes are quite aware of what's going on, and God will take care of things!"
My friends, when you state (whatever the circumstances), "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?", quite possibly you have allowed yourself to join the side of the "Naysayers" and are seriously questioning the Sovereignty of God! So long as the Lord is in His sacred temple, so long as God reigns from heaven, the question is absurd at best and dangerously close to sacrilege at worst.
This is not to downplay or in any way minimize true, Biblical Lament. I have made it a point to introduce legitimate Lament to my students as an under-neglected genre (with thanks to Dr. Heath Thomas of Southeastern who radically changed my thinking on this matter). True Biblical Lament cries out to God in despair, even questions God, yet does so from the perspective of faith.
Psalm 11:3, however, is not Lament; rather, it is whining, a "woe is us" attitude that focuses on the deterioration of society (or whatever) and forgets God has called us to a sacred mission to be the light to the world. In other words, when we bemoan the fact that the light seems to be going out in the world, we are actually bemoaning our own failure with the suggestion that God himself has not adequately equipped us.
Context, then, remains essential to any legitimate study of the Bible. Yet many preachers and teachers strip verses out of their context as if it didn't matter, as if those verses could appear anywhere. Folks, the Holy Spirit has inspired location just as much as content! As an example of the absurdity of being able to conduct legitimate interpretation without context, I play a little game with my Hermeneutics students: I have them divide up into teams, then try to guess the location in the Bible, the significance, and the application of the following passages (#6 is especially difficult—no student has successfully guessed or interpreted it yet!) Also, one of these is not actually from the canonical books but from the Apocrypha (Brenton's translation; all others are in KJV English); can you guess which one? Some of these are actually kind of easy, some are tough.
Let's Play: Guess that Context!
1. And the sword shall abide on his cities, and shall consume his branches, and devour them, because of their own counsels.
2. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes:
3. Thy disciples fast not
4. Insomuch as God hath delivered us from great perils, we thank him highly
5. The mountains were not found.
6. bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth
7. And thy meat which thou shalt eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day: from time to time shalt thou eat it.
8. So she gleaned in the field until even, and beat out that she had gleaned: and it was about an ephah of barley.