Context matters (1 Samuel 4:5-10)

1 Samuel 4:5-10 (ESV)


As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”

So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers.


            Context matters. Rules of biblical interpretation matter. These thoughts came home to me for some strange reason this morning as I read through the above passage. I did not think about hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) because of the story. Rather, I thought about how to interpret the Bible because of how I could imagine the passage preached.


            Let’s remove the passage from any context and just limit ourselves to the paragraph or so above. What is the story? Israel brought the Ark of God into the camp and were greatly encouraged. The Philistines wrongly interpreted the presence of the Ark as the presence of multiple gods who would give Israel great power. The enemy of Israel then rallied, summoning their courage and putting Israel to a great defeat.


            If we ignored context and rules of biblical interpretation, especially allowing other passages to shed light on this one, we might conclude that the best way to win a victory is to so misunderstand who God is and how he works as to somehow find strength by opposing him. Clearly this pattern worked for the Philistines.


            Of course, this passage is not at all about the Philistines and what they believed. They could not see behind the scenes. They could not see that God was using them as tools in his hand to accomplish his plan of chastising Israel for her unfaithfulness. They did not know that, in the surrounding context, God had revealed that he was about to take the priesthood away from one family and raise up Samuel. The passage shows us that God is in control and will accomplish his will. The passage glorifies our Lord, but it only does so when it is interpreted properly, in its context.


            I suppose the reason this grabs my attention is that I have to be very careful when I interpret passages. I need to be thoughtful as I help others to interpret Scripture as well. If we miss the big picture, failing to allow Scripture to illumine Scripture, we will become myopic. If we are not careful, we will rip paragraphs out of their context and completely miss the biblical picture. We must strive to read the Bible as God’s story, God’s revelation of himself to us. We must let it all shine the light of God’s glory into our lives. We must not pick it apart, but hold it together in order to see the God it reveals.


            Of course, I am not discouraging in-depth study of a single passage or verse or even word. Such study is important for developing our theology and settling difficult issues. What I am reminding us to do is to interpret wisely, with the whole biblical picture in view. May our handling of God’s word be careful and reverent as God’s word deserves.