Every now and then as we study, we come across passages in Scripture that are difficult to understand. I find that there are a few main reasons for having trouble understanding a passage:
- Sometimes there isn’t sufficient context to narrow down the meaning. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:29 speaks of a baptism for the dead. The surrounding context doesn’t sufficiently define the passage for us to explain Paul’s reference to this practice.
- Two passages referring to the same event may appear to be in conflict with one another. For example, in Luke’s account the Last Supper appears to be a Passover meal, while in John’s account the Last Supper appears to occur one day prior to the Passover.
- Other times, confusion results when a straightforward reading of the passage challenges one of our deeply held beliefs. Recently, our Bible study group discussed one such passage: 1 Samuel 16:14 in which we read, “a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him (Saul).”
Most of the people in our group were disturbed by the implications of this passage. People wondered whether God could, or would, send a harmful or evil spirit to a person. This concern resulted in lengthy discussions over several studies as the concept appears again 3 chapters later.
Dos and Don’ts
I’d like to begin with what NOT to do. Don’t:
- Cling dogmatically to your initial reaction or past understanding of the passage. The struggles we experience with a passage may be a sign of spiritual growth. Growth may not be easy, but struggling with the meaning of a passage may be necessary.
- Jump to the internet looking for answers. The internet is a great source of information—widely varying information. When we are studying difficult scriptural passages, we can find any answer we want on the web. Too often, internet searches on theological questions result in confirmation biases. We “find” the sites that confirm what we already believe and discount opposing viewpoints.
- Rely on “authorities” for the answers. The notes in the Study Bible or commentary aren’t exempt from bias. In most cases, we have chosen study Bibles and commentaries that largely align with our views. If God is using this struggle with a passage to promote growth in our understanding, relying on these sources may be counter-productive.
What should we do to understand difficult passages?
- Pray. It sounds obvious. Of course we want to pray. One powerful element of prayer in this situation, however, is submitting to God.
- Unless one are highly proficient in the original languages, we need to rely on the excellent translations available. We need to understand the difference between a translation and a paraphrase and rely on translations for deeper study. Read the passage in multiple translations and see if the variations in wording provide additional insight. In this case, the translations agree that the spirit is from the Lord, although there is some variation in describing the spirit as evil, harmful, or distressing:
- Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented and terrified him. (AMP)
- Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him. (ESV)
- Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him (NASB)
- Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him (NIV)
- But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the Lord troubled him (NKJV)
- Examine the immediate and surrounding context for understanding. In this case, 1 Samuel 19:9 repeats a similar situation for Saul, “Then a harmful spirit from the Lord came upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his spear in his hand.” We can conclude that this reference to an evil spirit from the Lord is not merely one isolated verse.
- Look for teachings on the same subject in other parts of Scripture. For example, if we examine Scripture for other cases where God sends an evil spirit we can find something similar in Judges 9:23, “And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech”. We also have the teaching of 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 where God sends a delusion, showing that God acts in ways that may not fit our pre-conceived notions, “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness”.
- Trust that Scripture is true, even when we don’t understand how or why it is true.
In conclusion, God’s word cannot fail. If there is an apparent contradiction or confusing detail, we cannot conclude that Scripture is unreliable. The eternal, omniscient God has given us His word and inspired every part of it. He will help us grapple with it to understand the truth He has revealed. It is far better to conclude that Scripture is true, even if we don’t understand how or why the statements are true, than to rely on our speculation. It is better to trust God and His Word than to have an answer to every question.