Selective reading

“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God. . . . Do not fear, nor be afraid; have I not told you from that time, and declared it? You are my witnesses. Is there a God besides me? Indeed there is no other Rock; I know not one” (Isaiah 44:6, 8).

An American friend who once lived in Nepal told me of a visitor to their home who raved about how much she “loved Nepal.” My friend then smiled and said, “But she never left Thamel (the tourist section of Katmandu).” Her meaning was clear. The tourist loved what she saw of the country, but that was very little and was not at all representative of the nation. She, like so many others, took back a distorted perception of the land and people she supposedly experienced.

We all struggle against this selective judgment in many areas besides tourism. We have a bad experience (or read or hear of someone else’s bad experience) with a lawyer or the courts, and rush to condemn all lawyers, or the entire legal system. We purchase a car that does not perform as we think it should – from that time we think that all cars of that brand are bad.

This especially applies to religion and to interpretation and application of the Bible. I recently read a brief article seeking to prove that the Old Testament does not teach monotheism (the doctrine of one God), but rather that the God of the Bible is one of many gods accepted by the Old Testament writers. Yes, it is argued, they considered him the supreme God, but did not deny the existence of other, lesser, deities.

Offered as proof of this thesis were various passages such as Exodus 18:11: “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; for in the very thing in which they behaved proudly, He was above them.” Certainly there are many passages which refer to the gods of the nations, or gods whom the ancestors of Israel served, as well as those whom they would worship in the wilderness and later in the land of Canaan.

These passages neither debate or concede the reality of such gods. They existed as idols in the lands and as ideas in the minds of their believers. They are recognized as such by biblical writers, but almost always in order to compare the true God to them, or to condemn Israel for following them.

One who would argue that the Old Testament recognizes such gods as real must contend with the many passages which specifically deny their reality, such as Isaiah 44. After unequivocally stating “besides [God] there is no other,” the prophet, in a long sarcastic diatribe, mocks all idolatry (verses 9-20). Isaiah tells how a man cuts down a tree, using some of it for building material, some as wood to burn, “and the rest of it he makes into a god, his carved image. He falls down before it and worships it, prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god” (Isaiah 44:17).

It has often been demonstrated that one can defend almost any doctrine or philosophy from the Bible by using only selected “proof texts.” This is not honest use of Scripture. God’s word is to be used ethically and sincerely (2 Timothy 2:15), not unlawfully (1 Timothy 1:7-8). We must honor the context of all passages and the cumulative teaching of all Scripture on any given subject. We are not at liberty to pick and choose only those particular words and phrases that support our preconceived ideas.

One who visits New York City (or Los Angeles or any other single locale) is hardly in a position to speak authoritatively about what America is like. And one cannot present the will of God from one or a few carefully chosen texts. Paul stood as our example when he said, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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