Reading the Bible with the Ancients

Reggie Kidd

More Than Music Column with Dr. Reggie Kidd

How do we take the Bible as God’s Word and make it the text for our lives when we come across words like these?

“O Daughter of Babylon, you devastator! … Happy shall be they who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Ps 137:8–9 

We can just ignore them. We can denounce them, allowing that they may reflect a sense of right and wrong that seemed appropriate at one time, but surely shouldn’t have found its way into the Bible. We can equivocate them, writing them off as words of a bogus “Old Testament God of Wrath” that have (thankfully) been countered by those of the (real) “New Testament God of Love.” 

Or … we can ask if the presence of hard words demands we slow down and seek a deeper wisdom, maybe even make a lifeline call to ancient readers who had a more nuanced take on Scripture and its levels of meaning. 

“Rather than ignore obscurities, with the help of the ancients we can embrace the truth that all Scripture was written for our instruction, and we can commit to wrestling with challenging passages.”

Double Vision

Our forebears in the faith read at two levels: the literary and the spiritual. They did so because they understood the Bible to have two dimensions: the perspective of its human authors who wrote the words, and the perspective of its divine Author the Holy Spirit who, in the imagery of 2 Timothy 3:16, “breathed” the words.

Our forebears in the faith believed that, at one level, a challenging Old Testament passage like this one from Psalm 137 has its place in Israel’s unfolding story of covenant-formation, -breaking, -keeping, -renewal. They understood that at another level, as Peter says, every passage has its place in anticipating “sufferings destined for Christ and his subsequent glory” (1 Pet 1:11), and, as Paul says, was “written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). 

Seeing Multiplied

In a brilliant little essay entitled “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” church historian David Steinmetz explains the mindset of Christians from antiquity like the fifth century monk John Cassian (A.D. 360–435), who wrote of a fourfold sense of Scripture. The sum of that approach is: 

  • What, in the first place, is the plain sense, the simple course of literary and historical exposition? In the second place, though, especially when there are challenging points, where we may be tempted to ignore, denounce, or equivocate?
  • What might a passage teach us about faith—that is, about the coming Christ and His Church?
  • What might a passage teach us about love—that is, about the redeemed person’s duty to love God and neighbor?
  • What might a passage teach us about hope—that is, about renewal for the world and resurrection for the individual?

Steinmetz Summarizes Cassian’s Approach:

The Psalm became a lament of those who long for the establishment of God’s future kingdom and who are trapped in this disordered and troubled world, which with all its delights is still not their home. They seek an abiding city elsewhere. The imprecations against the Edomites and the Babylonians are transmuted into condemnations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. If you grant the fourfold sense of Scripture, David sings like a Christian.

See Also

With A Little Help From Our Ancient Friends

Thus, ancient readers wrestling with Psalm 137 recognize that their own exile is in not in a physical Babylon, but in the “not yet” of still having to struggle with sin, and that in Christ’s Church—in Word and Sacrament and fellowship—they already anticipate the ultimate homecoming of the heavenly Jerusalem. As a result, they find themselves praying for the destruction of the soul’s enemies, and for the rescue of the souls of others similarly afflicted. 

Rather than ignore obscurities, with the help of the ancients we can embrace the truth that all Scripture was written for our instruction, and we can commit to wrestling with challenging passages.

Rather than denounce difficult words, with the help of the ancients we can name the true enemies or vexing life-issues God wants us to address.

Rather than equivocate when it’s hard to reconcile what seem to be competing truths, with the help of the ancients we can push hard to see how things like justice and mercy meet at Christ’s cross.

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