“The Bible Says.” Why That’s Not As Simple As It Sounds.

In the Arizona desert, there is a little critter called a “stick lizard.” On days when the temperature is sky high and the desert floor is like a hot plate, this little animal runs around with a stick in its mouth. When its feet become too hot to stand, it stops, pokes the stick in the sand, and climbs up on it. Then, after they cool, he hops off, grabs the stick in his mouth, and he’s gone again.  — I want to be like the stick lizard: going on and doing my job when everyone else stays home because they can’t take the heat.

I posted that on Facebook the other day.

Where did I get the story? I found it in Smithsonian magazine some years back.

Well, I did and I didn’t.

It was actually a letter to the editor of the Smithsonian. But I never forgot it, and have used the stick lizard in the occasional article, devotional and sermon over these years. He seems like such a survivor, a tiny creature that has figured a way to overcome obstacles.

And now, I find out it’s not so.

One of my Facebook friends, a pastor in Arkansas, commented that according to “clay.thompson@arizonarepublic.com,” the stick lizard does not exist. It’s “old-timer, tall-tale hooey,” he said, but “it amuses the tourists.”

Another great sermon illustration shot down by reality.

Now, in all fairness, all we have said is that an Arkansas pastor “said” someone named Clay Thompson says this. I have not followed up to see if there is such a person, if he said such, and if he has evidence the critter is fictional. The letter to the editor of the Smithsonian does not make the animal exist, and the report of a nay-sayer does not prove he doesn’t.

Having a reference to cite as the source of a great story or quote is always good policy, but simply saying “Thom DickenHarry said this” does not make it so.

People play this little game with the Scriptures. Case in point.

A couple of years back, I ran across a newspaper column where prominent columnist  Cal Thomas was taking a potshot at some preacher or other for living lavishly.  He did so by quoting our Lord: “Do not acquire gold or silver or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two tunics, or sandals, or a staff, for the worker is worthy of his support” (Matthew 10:9-10).

Did Jesus say that? He sure did. The quote is accurate.

But that’s not all He said on that subject.

Later, Jesus reversed those very instructions.

“‘When I sent you out without purse and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?’ And they said, ‘No, nothing.’ And He said unto them, ‘But now, let him who has a purse take it along, likewise also a bag, and let him who has no sword sell his robe and buy one….'” (Luke 22:35-36).

So, to quote the first passage as authoritative for believers today without any reference to the second is either to reveal one’s ignorance of the Word or to practice deceit. (I have long forgotten the actual context of Mr. Thomas’ words–what preacher he had reference to, the point he was making, etc.–but my account of what he said is true.)

How the practice of deceit and manipulation with quotes operates.

Once in a while, when you come across a great quotation, the author’s name underneath will reveal him/her to be a novelist.  When tracing the quote back to its source, we often discover that the author put those words in the mouth of one of his characters. So, in a way the author said those words and in another way, he didn’t.

One way writers convey a controversial point without enraging readers is to have a character spout those words. Readers may get mad at the character but not at the writer.

People quote Shakespeare all the time, when what they should be doing (depending on the situation) is saying, “Shakespeare has King Lear saying” a thing.

One of our old-time hymns speaks of “such a worm as I.” Where did that put-down of humans come from? Perhaps from Job 25:6: “How much less man, that maggot, and the son of man, that worm!”

But the speaker of those words was Bildad, one of Job’s flawed counselors. God did not say this, even though “it’s in the Bible.” (The modern rendition of that hymn changed the line to “a sinner such as I.”)

Quoting from the book of Job is always chancy, since it’s almost entirely a conversation men are having with one another. Even the protagonist, Job himself, is not always on target with his words. (Job does however speak some great, great quotations, such as 14:14; 19:25-26 and 23:12, three of my favorites.)

Serious truth-seekers and mature disciples of Jesus Christ will always want to be careful with their handling of the Word:

1) We must not take at face value any statement of “The Bible says….”, no matter who says it. Manipulators count on the gullible being easily duped and never checking to see that their claims are authentic.

2) Like the Bereans of old (Acts 17:11), we will look up Scripture quotations to make sure they say what the speaker/writer claims and that the context supports the interpretation.

3) We will be conservative in how we use Scripture, making sure that we cite references accurately and never carelessly nor deceptively.

4) When pastors and teachers we know and respect are found to be misquoting Scripture or misusing it in these ways, we will prayerfully and humbly call this to their attention. It’s the loving thing to do.

5) This is not to say, however, that quoting only part of a text is wrong. Scripture writers often quoted earlier lines from the Word, but almost never word-for-word. (I suspect a lot of that is due to their going by memory as well as the near impossibility of looking up every reference in a scroll somewhere to make sure they had the line correct.) An example is Exodus 34:6-7 which is quoted all through the Old Testament (Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17;  Psalms 86:15; 103:8;145:8; Jonah 4:2; and Joel 2:13.), but never verbatim. I find that liberating.

6) God’s people must always handle the Word of the Lord carefully and reverentially.  Some time ago, I was performing a wedding with the priest in a local Catholic church. During the rehearsal, it was decided that a bridesmaid would read a portion of Scripture during the wedding. The question arose as to how to get the text to her in the middle of the ceremony. Someone suggested we photocopy those verses so she would not have to carry the Bible itself. The priest said, “I’ll type it up for you. I have such a reverence for the Word that I never photocopy it.” I blushed as I remembered all the times I had laid the Bible across the copy machine and hit “print.”

7) When citing Scripture or when reading someone else’s references to the Word, we always do well to keep in mind certain questions, whether we ask them or not:

–Does the Bible actually say this?  Is the quote authentic?

–Does the Bible say that only in an earlier version, but modern scholarship has shown the meaning to be something entirely different?

–Did it mean to say what is being said? Just because the words form a certain sentence does not automatically mean the intent was a verbatim reading. Often figures of speech (“the eye of a needle” and “I am the door”) are metaphors not to be taken literally.

–Does the context support the interpretation?

–Is there anywhere that Scripture cancels (or fulfills or ends) a promise or command you are citing? (See the Cal Thomas reference above.)

Evangelist Billy Graham had a practice which I like and recommend. Instead of peppering his sermons with “The Apostle Paul says”–since Paul said so much, preachers find themselves quoting him a lot–he would simply say, “Scripture says.” We have good precedent for that, since the Apostle Peter refers to Paul’s writings as “scripture” (see II Peter 3:16).

Pastors who obsessively feel they have to give the chapter and verse for every scripture they cite are needlessly burdening their hearers. Even the Bible does not go to great lengths to make sure every reference is there. I smile every time I read Hebrews 4:4, “For He has thus said somewhere….” (and proceeds to quote two different Old Testament texts). In Hebrews 5:6, we read: “Just as He says also in another passage….”  (In fairness, Scriptures had not been divided into chapter and verse when the New Testament was written. But the point remains, because frequently the writer does not even bother to name the OT writer or the book from which he lifted a quote.)

The teacher and preacher of the Word does not need to slavishly belabor getting all the references and quotes exactly right in order to be faithful. Sometimes, in the middle of a lesson or sermon or even a conversation, we get the gist of a text and cite it and go on. So long as we are faithful in our use and accurate in the context, the Lord blesses His Word in the hearts of all who hear.

“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.