My wife, Anne, and I were out for a drive last week and as we came to an intersection, I quietly pointed with my finger toward a magnolia tree that was about to burst into flower. Anne gasped and looked frantically around for danger (something I’m prone to do when the situation is reversed). My simple gesture pointing out beauty was misinterpreted as a tongue-tied indication of danger.
Communication is complicated!
This is no less true with God as he communicates to us through the Bible. I remember when I first decided to read the Bible on my own. It came after finishing a series of children’s devotionals that my parents had given me. These had whetted my appetite for the Bible. I was probably nine years old and I had no idea what I was getting into. I would spend the next few years working my way steadily through the Bible and confronting stories and messages that were disturbing or confusing or just downright foreign to me.
But there were also so many passages that spoke to my young heart of the grandeur of God and his plan for this world. Today I still find some passages are difficult to read because they challenge my thinking, my behaviour or even my sensibilities, but I still believe that it is God speaking to me. And I have been helped by wise Christ-followers in my life who have helped me to clarify my understanding of the Bible so that I can hear God speaking more and more clearly. Here is one crucial questions that I ask as I read the Bible to help me get the most from it.
Does this prescribe or describe?
When a doctor tells you that you need to take some medicine, they fill out a “prescription” which states the exact name of the drug, the exact dosage to be taken and how frequently. It’s done in a precise way because what you’re being given is powerful and could have dire consequences if you don’t follow the instructions. It has been “prescribed” to you. Literally the word “prescribe” means to write something at the beginning. In other words it is written instructions that are given before you follow through on them. In the Bible this is true of “commands.” These are passages in the Bible in which God gives his people specific instructions which he expects them to follow. They also come with the understanding that, if they are not obeyed, there will be dire consequences.
However, not every verse in the Bible contains a command! In fact, the vast majority of verses do not!! Instead, much of the Bible contains descriptions of life. The problem is that if we get descriptive passages mixed up with prescriptive passages the Bible begins to look like a horror show or a farce.
For example, Psalm 137:9 says, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” If that is a command, then God’s people turn into baby-murdering monsters! But it is a descriptive passage; notice that there is no order being given. Specifically, it describes the anger of the writer of this poem at the enemies who killed his family and neighbours and deported him from his home. It reveals the truth of the human heart, not the commands of God.
Look carefully at the passage you are reading and ask yourself if a direct order is being given or if you are simply being given a description of faith or disobedience. A description is still very valuable to help us know how to live our lives of faith. Those passages may not be God yelling “stop!” but when God points his finger at something beautiful or noteworthy, we still need to pay attention.