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YouVersion Verse of the Year

I received an email from YouVersion (I use their app occasionally) with their 2023 “verse of the year.” This is the verse that has been shared, bookmarked, and highlighted most often through their community.

It is Isaiah 41:10 (note that my links go to BibleGateway):

[D]o not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you; I will help you;
    I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

Isaiah 41:10 (NRSV)

I find this interesting as this is a verse that might be considered by some to be taken out of context. I don’t know if you’ve seen any examples, but there’s even a coffee cup that reads “I can do all things through a verse taken out of context.” This lampoons the frequent use of Philippians 4:13 as a promise that God will help you do anything, from winning in sports to success in your business, to successful family life, and beyond. More on this verse a few paragraphs down.

In the case of Isaiah 41:10, the specific reference is to the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, who are promised strength for the return and rebuilding. Isaiah 40 and onward, especially through 55, deals with these circumstances and is tremendously encouraging. So if you’re using it as encouragement in trying to get through your work week, you might well be taking it out of context.

If you take the Bible as a series of data points, this is fairly accurate. This is not, in its context, a promise for all times and places. You will still get tired. Bad things may happen to you, as they happened to Job and as they have happened to many of God’s servants through time.

So maybe it shouldn’t be used in the way that it is, likely the very usage that got it “verse of the year” from YouVersion.

I’d say, not so fast.

First, let me note, that many of those same servants of God who have grown weary and suffered through history have been sustained by verses like this. We might ask ourselves why that is. I haven’t run into that many Christians who really believe a Christian will never get tired. I don’t. Yet I appreciate this verse. I appreciate it even more when I’m bone weary and wondering whether I can take the next step.

Crazy man, eh? (Well, yes, I am crazy, but that’s not relevant!)

I recall C. S. Lewis’s image in The Magician’s Nephew, which I will always see as book 6 in the series however much publishers change it!) of a “deep magic from before the dawn of time” that overrides the rules that are known generally. Similarly, there’s context, and then there’s context.

If my intent is to answer the question, “What is Isaiah saying about God?” Then I’m going to answer in terms of the return from exile, and also note that the audience is Israel. On this basis, I could find ways to remove the majority of scripture from relevance to me today. God isn’t talking to me here. That promise doesn’t apply to me.

Scholars, and those who aim to appear scholarly, tend to wander about the landscape of scripture, informing the poor mortals who have been getting comfort from various passages that they are wrong, and that the scripture doesn’t mean what they think it means.

Very often, that is quite correct. Sometimes people can be dangerously wrong in what they’re getting from scripture.

But the problem is this: As scholars pull up the markers people have used to guide their lives, what do they hand out instead? With what do they replace these markers that have guided Bible readers’ relationship with God for decades, centuries, even millennia?

Oh, did I say the problem? There’s a second one. Are those who criticize sure they’re right when they say a passage does not apply?

I think very often they’re wrong, and I think many non-scholarly Christians living day-by-day relatively ordinary Christian lives instinctively get it more right. This is based on both a deeper and a broader context.

In the case of Isaiah 40, the exiles are promised strength. Now remember that these exiles were in no danger of thinking God was promising that no matter what happened, they would never get tired. They weren’t in danger of thinking that everything was going to be easy. No, they were headed out on a hard task, and they and their immediate ancestors had lived through the exile.

What was important was that God was with them and was now rescuing them and would be with them through all that came. In the broadest (and I think deepest) context of scripture, this is the story of the God who saves, built on the original story of the Exodus from Egypt. What do you suppose those Israelites thought about the idea that those who worship God would never suffer harm? They had even experienced some of the plagues right along with the Egyptians! They wandered through the wilderness. That experience was reinforced by the exile and restoration and became a foundation for the ultimate core story of Christianity, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

As such, Christians should be very willing to take up the promises of these events just as they are taken up in the story of redemption. We serve a God who redeems. We serve a God who is with us through all our suffering, who is there when we are weary. We know these things happen to us. But we also know they happened to people in the past because we’ve read their stories (testimonies) and we know that God’s promises to them, always tempered by understanding the broad and deep context, and even the immediate literary context, do, in fact, apply to us.

I recall when a relative ripped one such verse from my mother, surely with good scholarly intent to maintain the accuracy of biblical interpretation. She had a favorite verse, Isaiah 49:25:

But thus says the Lord:
Even the captives of the mighty will be taken,
    and the prey of the tyrant will be rescued,
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
    and I will save your children.

Isaiah 49:25 (NRSV)

This relative pointed out to her the context, very much like the one in Isaiah 41, and part of the same sequence of materials (Isaiah 40-55 form a coherent block) did not involve making sure everyone’s children were saved, but simply that the children of those who had gone into exile would be saved and brought back to their land. She used this as encouragement about her children, which, he told her, was to use the passage out of context.

In the immediate context, that’s absolutely true. But in the broader and deeper context, this becomes part of the underlying story of redemption and of God’s intention for God’s people in all times and places. Readers should be encouraged by this, not because it was somehow specifically directed at them, but because it formed a formidable piece of the foundation of the story of a saving God, one who was and is with us in trouble, one who knows the pain, and yet one who takes us through to triumph.

I had an opportunity to discuss this with my mother many years ago, and when I had given my explanation, she simply said, “Then I’m taking my verse back!” And she did!

Philippians 4:13 can be used in many questionable ways, but it is not questionable to think that God will help you get through whatever situation you’re in. Many point out how this is about being able to carry out one’s mission despite hardships. And it is precisely that. But as a Christian, your life should be mission. I don’t think God is promising you that you’ll win all your games. Bluntly, most people, even those I’ve heard mocked about taking this out of context, don’t think it means that either.

But if you’re reading it that God is with you as you carry out whatever call God has put on your life, if you believe from this that God will be with you and strengthen you for God’s own purposes, then I think you’re reading the verse in the deeper context.

I want to end with one warning. Seeing this deeper context can help us connect with God through the story of scripture. We learn about relationship to God through reading about those who have been in such relationships over the centuries and millennia. When we read such a passage as giving us permission and power to carry out our own will wherever and whenever we want, we’re missing both the immediate context of scripture and also the broader and deeper context.

Suggestion: When you want to apply one of these promises, read the immediate context. Then ask yourself how those who first heard it might have experienced it. Try to join the story as you see it in their lives and find your courage there.

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