Common Clichés and Misreadings

There are countless clichés and “urban church legends” promulgated by Christians. For various reasons, apparently no matter what the denomination is (or lack thereof), the average Christian layperson and leader continues to foster false readings of the text. Garnering a conglomerate list of bad theological phrases would be expansive.

The following are some real gems. I've seen entire books and workbooks (bestselling, some of them!) on the following bad readings of the Bible. This sample manifests what it means to ignore a favorite word among scholars: context, context, context. It clears up so many things.

“A Man After God’s Own Heart”
13 And Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you." (1Sa 13:13-14 ESV)

Traditionally, the text "after God's own heart" means something like "David shares some moral quality that is like God." This is a possible reading, but it has its problems. (For a recent scholarly defense of the traditional reading, see Benjamin Johnson, "The Heart of YHWH's Chosen One in 1 Samuel," JBL 131, no. 3 (2012)). It seems to me that the chief problem with this reading is that there is nothing in the text that tells us what about David's heart is like God's. The story has nothing to do with David being moral. It has nothing to do with David hearing God on a regular basis, etc.

Instead, nearly every OT scholar today reads the phrase, "after my own heart" to mean "according to my choice." See how “his own heart” is used in 1 Kings 8:38; 12:33; Isa. 57:17; and Jer. 23:17.

Another possible reading, it seems to me, is that one would say that “after my own heart” means “will do what I tell him to do.” This seems to be how it is used in Jeremiah 3:15 and 13:10.

But no matter what, it seems to me, what this phrase cannot mean is the traditional interpretation. Even if David’s obedience is in view, it cannot mean that God is obedient too, since God obeys no one. There is nothing in this context or language that tells us that David’s “heart” somehow mimics or is like God's “heart.”

Instead, “after my own heart” either means “after God’s own choice,” or “will do what I tell him to do.” Either way, David’s moral character doesn’t seem to be in view at all.

“If My People . . .”
12 Then the LORD appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. 13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 17 And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, 18 then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, 'You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.' 19 "But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 20 then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. (2Ch 7:12-20 ESV)

When you read this, did you stand and salute the American flag? Is this the favorite text at your July 4th service too?

Reading this text in context quickly lets us determine that this has nothing to do whatsoever with America or any other nation besides ancient Israel during the reign of Solomon. Solomon had just built the Temple and he prayed for God’s presence (end of 2 Chron 6). God’s glory filled the place. That night, during a dream, God made a promise to Solomon and his reign. If Solomon, not the next Republican President, keeps the covenant, leading his people to repentance and prayer, then God will guide his reign. If not, then God will “pluck [him] from my land . . . and this house [= the Temple].”

That’s it. It’s a promise to Solomon and his reign concerning the ancient nation of Israel. I know that this is controversial to some people, but for Biblical authors, this is quite simple: there is only one nation that formed a covenant with God. And it’s not America. It’s not any other nation on the planet. Jesus wasn't an American. America is not promised anything whatsoever concerning Israel’s promises because why? America has no covenant with God. This was a powerful promise for Solomon. And sure, Christians can expect that God will hear our prayers when we pray. But, that's it. There is no promise for any other nation intended or implied in this text. Context, context, context.

“I Can Do All Things”
13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phi 4:13 ESV)

This might be the most popular verse used out of context. People cite this all the time as a proof-text to support whatever it is they want to succeed. This might be one that irritates me the most because it’s so commonly quoted utterly excised from context.

Interestingly, I just read an outstanding essay on the blog of Dr. Ben Witherington, III. Of course, he says it well. No need to re-write anything. So, here’s a segment from it:
“We’ve all seen the T shirts, and the T-bow eye black touting Phil. 4.13. And the translation always is ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me’. Leap tall buildings in a single bound, overcome all odds, go boldly where no one has gone before. You get the picture.

The problem is, that this translation absolutely makes no sense of the context, and is not a literal rendering of the verse in question at all. The verb ‘to do’ is nowhere to be found in this Greek verse. The verb ‘ischuo’ means ‘to be able, strong, healthy, valid, powerful’. That’s the only verb in this phrase. You have to fill in the helping verb, and the context absolutely doesn’t favor the translation— ‘to do’ as in ‘I am able to do all things….’ Not at all. Here is a rendering of the verse in context.

“I know a humbled state, and I know also surplus. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of how to be satisfied, even if hungry and being able also to do without. I am able/strong enough [to endure] all things in Him who empowers me.”

What Paul is saying is that no matter what his circumstances, God has given him the strength or ability to endure and be satisfied, even when he must do without, even when he must go hungry.

This verse has nothing to do with ‘I can accomplish anything with a little help from the Lord’. It is a verse about perseverance in God’s will and way, not about personal success or triumph or even overcoming odds to win an individual victory of some kind. And most emphatically it is not about God helping us achieve our desires and goals. It is about Paul submitting to God’s goals and plan, and God giving him the strength to do so, even when he must endure house arrest (as he did when he wrote this), and hunger, and deprivation.

The ‘superman’ rendering of this verse is all too typically American. It is based on an assumption that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, perhaps with a little help from above and a little luck.”

Not only is this verse typically mistranslated and ripped out of context, the common misreading of the text completely ignores reality. We fail at things all the time. Again I’ll say, Christians can fail. I love how Dr. William Lane Craig says it: Moreover, Christians can be incredibly discouraged, sad, and depressed. Have you read what Paul  says in 2 Cor. 4:8-9 and 2 Cor. 11:23-28? Dr. Richard Bauckham writes a good essay on this issue:

Let’s stop acting like God “blesses” everything so that everything we attempt will succeed. That’s bad theology and has no place on the lips of Christians.

“To Give You Life to the Full”
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (Joh 10:10 ESV)

There is no conceivable way that one could interpret this to mean that Jesus wants us all to be rich. Why? Because in the context of John and the other Gospels, Jesus never said, and would never had said, that the Kingdom of God is about being rich. I once heard Joel say on T.V. that “God wants everyone to own their own house.” [long pause of incredulity]

I don’t desire to unpack the richness of the term “life” in the Fourth Gospel. But, if you’ll look up every time it occurs, you’ll see that Jesus is using “life” to mean something like, “the quality of life governed by the reign/love of God.” In John, the opposite of “eternal life” is not death, but sin. Sin vs. eternal life. So here, Jesus is speaking of the quality of life governed by the Father. Quality, not quantity. Not wealth and prosperity.

Context, context, context.

Translation Issues that Scholars Know but Can’t Get Into the Public Mind

“As a Man Thinketh”
For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee. (Pro 23:7 KJV)

This one seems really popular among Pentecostals for some reason. I even found an essay written in 1902 by James Allen called, As a Man Thinketh.

This text is always used in vagueness: “You know,  . . . as the Bible says . . . ‘As a man thinketh’ . . .” I have never once heard this used in context or in proper translation.

This is purely a translation issue. And because of the beloved King James translation, we have a common misreading. Unfortunately, this text has nothing to do whatsoever with psychology. It has nothing to do with giving an insight into the power of cognitive behavioral therapy or the power of positive Joel Osteenian thinking. Nothing.

The truth is, this Hebrew text is a bit confusing. It means something “calculating in your mind.” The NET and ESV bring this out. For example:

“Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, 7 for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. "Eat and drink!" he says to you, but his heart is not with you. 8 You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten, and waste your pleasant words.” (Pro 23:6-8 ESV)

This text, in proper translation and context, has nothing to do with unveiling a deep psychological truth. Instead, it’s about the simple idea that a stingy person can’t be trusted. He’s scheming on the inside.

“I’ve Got a Mansion in Glory”
In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:2 KJV)

If you've grown up in church, then surely you've sung hymns that have this in the lyrics (like “Victory in Jesus”). I've heard numerous songs, sermons, and conversations about how we are all awaiting a “mansion in glory.” Unfortunately, this is mistaken reading.

Again, because of the beloved King James translation, this one has stuck in our minds. In Greek, it’s quite clear: it’s not “mansion” but “room, dwelling place, or abode.” Also see how John 14:23 is not talking about the Father making a “mansion” with the disciples. No; a “dwelling place.” It’s the same Greek word in both passages.

“There Was No Room in the Inn”
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luk 2:7 ESV)

The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about a week or two, depending on the traveling conditions. We have every reason to believe that Mary was not in a hurry or in the final stages of the third trimester. Instead, “while she was there, the days of her pregnancy were filled” (2:6). There’s no rush, no hurry, no panic. The dramatic Hollywood scenes are all fiction.

Instead, Mary would have stayed with Joseph’s family (don’t forget that’s the reason they came to Bethlehem in the first place). And because of the census, there would have been several other family members at the same house (notice how 2:18 assumes this: “all who heard it”).

The bottom line: they ran out of rooms. This is the precise meaning of the Greek word in 2:7: “because there was no place for them in the place/lodging/room.” For some reason, probably because of the overarching influence of the King James Version, this verse is continually translated as “there was no place for them in the inn.” But, “inn” is certainly not a proper translation. If Luke wanted to speak of a hotel or inn, he would have used the Greek word for that (as he does in 10:34). Instead, Luke just means that the rooms where people slept were full. We know that houses in this time and place were what we would call, “tiny.”

But where was Jesus born? Since Jesus was placed in a feeding trough for animals (though no animals are mentioned in any narrative), it is assumed that Jesus was born in a place where an animal ate. We have two probable options: (1) Many homes in this period and place were two stories. People slept upstairs (or on the roof), and the animals slept below them. Mary could have given birth in this bottom level of the house, or in something like a small courtyard. (2) Joseph’s family could have owned a small cave that acted like a stable. It seems to me that option #1 is the most likely. So much for entire pageants, skits, and songs denigrating an inn and inn keeper that never existed!