Popular choruses and church benedictions seem to be magnets for verses out of context. One of the more recent ones is the popular chorus, Give Thanks. The verse, the only verse, is a simple expression of thanks to God for having given Jesus Christ, His Son. We can all sing that with enthusiasm. It’s the refrain that gives some of us pause. It is expressed as though it were a scriptural benediction: “And now, let . . .” The first problem is there is no such benediction in Scripture.
The second problem, the more important one, is that the first part of the sung “benediction” is wrenched out of Joel 3:10 – “Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears; Let the weak say, 'I am strong.' " (NIV, NKJV, KJV, emphasis added) A cursory reading of the context of Joel 3:1-16 reveals that the above quotation is not a benediction! It is a taunt to the pagan nations to muster all their armies, all their strength, and come to the Valley of Jehoshaphat, that is, the Valley of Decision, where they will be judged.
Now I can hear the explanations and objections: Didn’t the Apostle Paul say, “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong”? (1 Cor. 1:27) And, “We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong” (even less applicable!)? And there’s Paul’s own testimony, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Paul’s wish for the Corinthian Christians was that they be spiritually strong and “complete” in Christ: “For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete.” (2 Cor. 13:9)
The concept of spiritual strength versus fleshly weakness is scriptural, but in the popular chorus, we sense more than a whiff of charismatic doctrine, especially when we sing on: “Let the poor say I am rich”! But that’s another issue entirely. Christians certainly do possess spiritual riches because of what Christ has done for us. But there are thousands of professing Christians who believe the atonement of Christ entitles us to all manner of physical and material blessings. But the New Testament does not support such notions. New Testament benedictions always speak of spiritual blessings, holy living, and heavenly hope.
Misquoting Scripture can be embarrassing. A beautifully carved plaque in a memorial chapel displayed this verse: “. . . absent in body but present in spirit” – 1 Corinthians 5:3. In context, the Apostle Paul was urging the church in Corinth to discipline an immoral member. Here’s the complete verse: “For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.” (1 Corinthians 5:3)
There was a time when liturgical churches closed services with the following portion of Genesis 31:49: “The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.” Eventually some ministers discovered that in the context this was a malediction, not a benediction! Jacob and Laban didn’t trust each other, so they set up a heap of stones as a witness if either passed over it to harm the other. The ignorance still prevails: I saw an ad for a necklace with that very sentiment engraved on it! You might want to consider the context before you give it to your loved one for Christmas or your anniversary.
I can’t help thinking that behind all the misuse of Scripture verses is an appalling ignorance of the Bible as a whole, and the false idea that the Bible is a collection of aphorisms and benedictions. I’ve written before about the danger of bibliomancy, taking verses out of context for guidance and decision-making. The Bible is truly God’s unfolding drama of redemption. It is meant to be read in its entirety, and each book in its context. Only then will the Scriptures transform lives.
In the meantime, my voice will drop out whenever the congregation starts to sing, “And now let . . .”