The Word on God’s Word
Scripture, Inerrancy, Bible
Last week we began a new study in Proverbs. Because the Book of Proverbs doesn’t really lend itself to our normal pattern (verse-by-verse exposition), we are going to look at what Proverbs has to say about various different subjects. This morning we direct our attention to what Proverbs says about the Bible itself.
Throughout the Bible, there are lots of passages that talk about the Word of God. The Psalms are filled with passages that speak of the glory of the scriptures. Surprisingly, there are not a lot of verses in Proverbs that talk about the Word of God, but one passage in Proverbs chapter 30 gives us some clear insight into how we should view God’s Word.
Every word of God proves true. He is a shield to all who come to him for protection. Do not add to his words, or he may rebuke you and expose you as a liar. (Proverbs 30:5-6, NLT)
Every Word Is True
The first statement in this proverb is that every word of God proves true. That is, every statement from God stands the test of time, and is revealed to be truthful. Practically, this means that the Bible is truthful in everything it teaches.
This verse supports the theological view known as Biblical Inerrancy. The doctrine of inerrancy states that the Bible is without error in all of its teaching. Some people get confused on this point, because what the Bible records is not always the same as what it teaches. Sometimes the Bible records the statements of ungodly people, and sometimes their statements go against biblical teaching. The Bible accurately records these false statements in order to instruct us by contrasting them with the truth.
The Book of Job is a perfect illustration of this. In it we read that God allowed Satan to test Job’s faith by taking away everything he owned, his family, and even his health. Most of the book records the conversation between Job and his friends. His friends take turns trying to explain why God would let this happen. Some of what they say is good and true, but much of it is not. For example, Job’s friends tried to tell him that God must have been punishing him for something he’d done, because bad things only happen to people who deserve it. That’s a false statement. Jesus tells us that sometimes bad things are a result of living in a sinful world (Luke 13).
If you read the whole Book of Job, you find that even though it includes the false statements of Job’s friends, it actually teaches that his friends were wrong. As a matter of fact, at the end of the book God himself addresses Job’s friends and calls them foolish for the things they said. What the Book of Job (and the rest of the Bible) teaches is true, even though it sometimes includes the false statements of others.
Some people go overboard with this, however. These people claim we can only be sure that the words Jesus are inerrant. But such a view is flawed because Jesus quoted from most every book of the Old Testament while he was present on the earth, and he referred to it as Scripture! Jesus clearly believed that God inspired the proclamation of His Word through human authors. So if what Jesus said was true (and it is), then we must conclude that all of Scripture is true. Similarly, Paul and Peter both believed that God was speaking through them. Listen to how Peter described this process.
Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20-21, NLT)
And Peter also describes Paul’s writings as Scripture.
This is what our beloved Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. (2 Peter 3:15b-16, NLT, emphasis mine)
The Bible is wholly trustworthy, but some people twist or distort Scripture in an effort to make it say something other than what it actually says. As Christians, we must be on guard against those who distort the message of the Bible. Here are a few principles to keep in mind to prevent us from being taken in by (or falling into the same traps as) those who twist God’s Word.
Our Bibles Are Reliable. Despite what the History Channel, The DaVinci Code, or other popular media may say, there is no conspiracy about what books are included in the Bible. Christians have basically always agreed on which books and letters were considered Scripture and which weren’t. It wasn’t until people tried to distort the Scriptures by adding or removing from the books that were recognized as authoritative that the early Christians decided they needed to formally declare what books made up the Bible. The “lost” books that you hear about were never lost at all—Christians always knew they were false, and so they (rightly) fell into obscurity.
Others claim that the Bible isn’t trustworthy because it’s a translation. Our English Bibles are translations, but all modern Bibles are translated by teams of scholars from manuscripts in the original language. With the exception of Bibles produced by cults (such as the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), most modern translations are very accurate. We can read our English Bibles confident that we are reading the Word of God. The reason there are differences between translations of the Bible is because language changes—the words we used to describe things 50, 100, or 500 years ago are different than the words we use today. So the teams of scholars who produce Bible translations use language that most clearly communicates the message of Scripture to people today. What the Bible teaches doesn’t change, only the language we use to communicate it changes. So find a translation that you can understand and then study the Word of God!
Context Matters! In order to properly understand the Bible, we must pay attention to context. We must understand who is speaking, whether they are speaking for God or for themselves, and to whom they were speaking. All of these things influence how we understand what a passage means. We must look at a passage in terms of how it would have been understood by its original audience, and look to see if there are principles we can draw from it. We can then seek to apply those principles to our own lives. When we skip the process of paying attention to context, we run the risk of misapplying Scripture.
American Christians tend to like bite-sized pieces of Scripture that we can pretend stand on their own. But no Bible verse stands on its own (because there weren’t even verses originally!), every verse has context that matters.
Take, for example, the popular verse Jeremiah 29:11, which says,
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (NLT)
Lots of people claim this as their “life verse”, as though it was written specifically to them for their situation. But it wasn’t! It was written to the Israelites who were being punished by God. If you read the verses that precede it, you will see that God was telling them that even though he had allowed them to be conquered and taken into exile, He had not forgotten them. He was telling them that in 70 years, the exile would end, and He would return them to their homeland—He still had a plan for them!
The plans God mentions in Jeremiah 29:11 were his plans for the Israelites in exile, not for 21st Century Christians in America. We must read the Bible through the eyes of its original audience, and then apply the principles we can see in these passages to our own lives. So what can we learn from this passage? We learn that God does have a plan for His people that is bigger than what we can see. The principle applies to all God’s people, even though the exact circumstances of the promise may not.
A similar example of the need for context is the passage from Matthew 7. Verse 1 is often quoted (in King James English) as, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” People use this verse to claim (in essence) that God said that no one should say that what anyone else is doing is wrong. Of course, reading the rest of the passage (as well as the rest of Jesus’ teachings) reveals that God says nothing of the sort. Reading a single verse without paying attention to its context leads to very distorted views of Scripture.
Read the Bible as it’s Intended to Be Read. Some people declare that we should read everything in the Bible literally, while others claim that everything has some sort of deeper, mystical meaning. The truth is that different parts of the Bible are intended to be understood in different ways. This sounds confusing, but we are usually pretty good at knowing what is literal and what is not. You know that if I said that I ate a ton of food last night that I’m exaggerating for effect. I didn’t literally eat 2,000 pounds of food. Similarly, if I tell you that I had a hamburger and fries for dinner, you would assume I wanted you to understand me literally.
We apply the same principle as we read the Bible. Much of the Bible is intended to be understood literally (Jesus literally rose from the dead, Moses literally parted the Red Sea, etc.), while some parts are intended to be understood more figuratively (many of the Psalms use poetic language, Jesus used colorful examples to illustrate a point). Proverbs is a good example of the need to read the Bible as it’s intended. A proverb is a statement that is true in a general sense, though it may not be true in every situation. So most proverbs cannot be read as universal truths; they must be read as general observations. If we take a proverb like, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” as a universal truth, it will lead to wrong conclusions when children seem to depart from what we’ve taught them. The right way to understand it is that generally speaking, children will eventually see the value of right living if it was instilled in them throughout their formative years…though not every child responds the same way.
At the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul used a lot of sarcasm. He made a sarcastic statement and then carefully explained it. We cannot read the Bible according to some rigid rules—we must be careful to ask how the author intended us to understand a given passage, and then read it as it’s intended to be read.
Interpret the Bible Using the Bible. Even when we apply these principles, there will be things that are difficult to understand, or passages whose meaning is unclear. The next step is to see if there is another passage of the Bible that teaches on the same subject. If there is, we can compare the passages and try to see if one passage helps us to understand the other. This works because the Bible does not contradict itself—every word is true! So if you come across a passage that seems to contradict another passage, you are interpreting one (or both) of them incorrectly! The best way to understand the Bible is to recognize that even though it is divided into different books written by different authors, the message is the same across them all. So we should use the parts of the Bible we do understand to help clarify the parts we don’t understand
God is a Shield to Those Who Come to Him
The second statement we read in this proverb is that God is a shield to those who come to Him. Some people view God’s Word as just a list of rules, but the truth is that God’s instructions to us serve a protective purpose.
In Proverbs 29:18 we read these words,
When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful. (NLT)
This is the opposite of what many people think. They look at God’s commands to us and they find them to be restricting and hard. They cannot understand how there is joy in obeying God’s law. An illustration may help you see how obedience can bring joy.
There is a whole group of people who enjoy an activity called “Jeeping”. They build a vehicle with a frame, wheels, suspension, and other parts designed for driving off-road and see what kind of terrain they can cross. Sarah’s uncle and cousin both enjoy Jeeping. One summer while we were Sarah’s family in rural Kentucky we decided to drive down to the creek. I drove our van, and her cousin drove his Jeep. When we got to the creek, her cousin drove right into the creek and took off. I stopped on the bank, thinking my van probably wouldn’t do well off-road. The people in the Jeep began waving at us to follow them, and the people in my car were yelling at me to follow them too…so against my better judgment, I drove my Dodge Caravan into the creek. The smiles and laughter on the faces of those in the Jeep quickly turned to panic and they began motioning for me to stop. We got out without any damage to our vehicle, but things were certainly tense for a few moments.
My point in telling this story is not to demonstrate my own stupidity, but to demonstrate that driving off-road is fun if you’ve got a Jeep, but it’s not fun if you have a Caravan. There is joy in using a vehicle for the purpose it’s designed for.
The same is true with us. God designed us to function in a certain way, and God’s Word helps us stay on the road we’re designed for. Sometimes we are tempted to believe that God’s way is boring, or that by following God’s laws, we are missing out. But God’s law is a shield to us—it keeps us from getting stuck in a creek. But a shield only works if you get behind it. It is not enough for us to understand the message of the Bible; we must do what it says. If we do, we’ll experience the joy of living the way He designed us to live.
Do Not Add to His Words
The third part of the proverb is found in verse 6,
Do not add to his words, or he may rebuke you and expose you as a liar. (NLT)
This command is pretty straightforward. We should not add to God’s Word. We can try to explain God’s Word and we can try to apply God’s Word, but we must never give our words or the words of some Christian teacher or even a church the same weight as we give the Word of God.
Years ago, I had a pastor who was trying to teach us how to lead someone to Christ. He talked about making sure they understood the gospel message and asking them if they wanted to commit their lives to Christ. If they did, he said we should lead them in the sinner’s prayer. He told us that we should write the words to this prayer down on the inside flap of our Bibles so we would always have them ready. I took exception to this suggestion—my reasoning was that my Bible contained everything a person needed in order to be saved. If the sinner’s prayer wasn’t already in my Bible, apparently it wasn’t necessary!
You can add to God’s Word even without writing things in your Bible. We do the same thing when we emphasize things that the Bible does not. When we require people to follow rules that the Bible doesn’t give, we are adding to God’s Word. When we declare that to be saved you must believe in Jesus and do something else (be baptized, speak in tongues, have some sort of experience), we add to God’s Word. God’s Word tells us all we need for salvation and living each day, we cannot improve upon it by adding to it.
We can also fall into the trap of removing words from the Bible. When I was in college I was leading the youth group and asked the students to look up a particular passage. One of the students grabbed a Bible off the shelf and then told me their Bible didn’t have that passage. Not believing them, I took their Bible to show them where it was. When I got to the page where the passage should have been, I discovered that it had been torn out. On the bit of paper that was left, someone had written, “I didn’t like this part, so I tore it out.” This is an extreme example of taking away from the Word of God, but the truth is there are many who seek to take away from God’s Word—even though their Bible still has all of its pages.
Think about how people have tried to redefine sexual morality; declaring that it is ok for a person to engage in premarital, extramarital, or homosexual activities because God doesn’t say that these things are wrong. The Bible is pretty clear on sexual morality; sex is intended to be shared by a husband and wife—anything outside of that is wrong. The same is true when people claim that a loving God would never punish people by sending them to hell. The only way you can reach this conclusion after reading the Bible is if you ignore all the parts say that God will do exactly that. There are many examples of ways people try to take away from the God’s Word without ever ripping a page.
This proverb reminds us that we add or remove from the Bible at our own peril. God’s Word will eventually be proven true, and we will be shown to be in error. Not only that, but when we ignore or redefine parts of God’s Word, we will face the consequences of living contrary to the way He has designed us to live.
The Book of Proverbs (and the Bible as a whole) is pretty clear on the importance of the Word of God. God’s Word tells us everything we need to know in order to live our lives and to have new life through Jesus Christ. Everything the Bible teaches is absolutely trustworthy.
People have tried for millennia to discredit the Bible, without success. The Bible has proven itself to be truthful and reliable over and over again, regardless of the attacks made against it. Because of this, we can believe what this proverb teaches us—that every word of God proves true, and that by living according to God’s word, we have a shield of protection.
As Christians, we should be “People of the Book.” We should turn to the Bible as our source of guidance and as our unwavering standard of truth above all else. It is not enough for us to know what the Bible says; we must actually live according to its precepts. The world around us changes, and the standards of our society change, but God’s Word is the same yesterday, today, and forever. If we believe that, the Bible will be at the center of every area of our lives.