My Bible study has started to focus on the Book of Psalms and I’m really enjoying the discussion. One thing I’ve been forced to think about is how the New Testament authors used the Psalms to help elevate their own works. They do this with several OT books not simply the Psalms; one minute your reading a story of Jesus then, “smack” OT quote. Now if the Gospel writers are to be remotely believed, Jesus himself did the same thing throwing out the random Scriptural quote to bolster his argument. And, also no surprise, the Christian community still maintains this practice. Every day I turn on social media feeds and there they are small quotes one or two verses appearing as I scroll down. Let me be entirely clear I am not opposed to this practice; however, I wonder if it is as effective as it was for Jesus and the NT authors.
Here is what I mean, many scholars will tell you that when Jesus or an NT author quoted an OT passage they usually had the entire passage in mind. Case in point Matthew 27:46 “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).” quotes Psalm 22:1. Now it is not important here whether Jesus really said this or if the Gospel writer added the words later (yes this is an actual academic debate). Either way, we are meant to read the story of Jesus’ death within the context of Psalm 22; taking the journey from abandonment, grief, and pain on to the joy and resolution at the end of the Psalm. In other words, the Psalm is a perfect description of this event in Jesus’ life, it predicted his suffering, he fulfilled its words. Unfortunately, many Christians I know flatten Matthew 27:46 out seeing only Jesus’ cry from the cross. They only see his grief and despair without any connection to the Psalm, and miss the point altogether.
This is also, I believe, what happens in these social media posts. A verse or two given out of context loses its meaning. Why, because unlike Jesus and the NT writers our modern Social Media Scribes seldom have the passage in mind. Do we consider if the verse from the Psalms we just posted actually makes sense in the context of our lives? Is it from a lament or praise? Perhaps the best illustration I can give is that ubiquitous use of 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings. People enjoy sitting there hearing all of the wonderful characteristics of love as two people pledge their lives to each other. Paul though meant that passage to challenge a congregation failing to love one another. The Corinthians were bragging about their “spiritual experiences” and Paul comes in saying “hogwash” if your spiritual experiences don’t lead you to love (this very demanding thing) then they are useless. I think that message would put a damper on many weddings. Or, take Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”. This is not a universal promise to Christians that God will bring you out of pain. This is God saying to those in exile that God’s people (note the collective noun) are under God’s protection, modern language would be God protects his Church.
Why is this important? Because Bible literacy is falling Christians do not know what the Bible says. We know these little memory verses for when times get hard, but we have little overall picture of the Bible. We know the promise but have no clue what makes the promise good. The Bible is simply becoming another self-help book full of good quotes without being the radical document of God’s revolution in the world which it is. Some might argue that mediating on a verse is a good thing, lectio divina and all that. Again, yes, within its place and in proportion. What I see is the Bible being fragmented into little pieces, people picking up what they like or see as useful and disregarding the rest. We are reminding ourselves “God is love” without remembering “Be holy as I am Holy” (or the reverse). It is like focusing on the individual tiles in a mosaic without ever seeing the picture.
I like to reiterate for clarity I am not condemning the use of quotes, I like them and often need to hear things like:
Shout to the Lord, all the earth; break out in praise and sing for joy! Psalm 94:4
But let’s remember what the whole passage is saying. When we quote Paul telling us to turn away from something and follow Jesus, let’s be very clear what he is telling us to move away from, sins or successes. My rule of thumb is to use quotes only when I have looked up the reference and read the passage. In other words when I have made sure that the snippet can stand for the whole (palms of praise or thanksgiving) or when the whole of the passage fits what I am saying. If the Church wants Bible literacy that begins with using the Bible as a whole not chopping it up for self-help material.