What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?

I could tell he was reluctant to ask his question, but I encouraged him that any sincere question was welcome. He seemed shocked at himself for actually expressing his doubt aloud, but he blurted out anyway: “I just don’t understand how this kind of verse can be the Word of God!” The passage that was troubling him was Psalm 137:8-9:

O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!

The first thing I said in response was that I would be troubled by anyone who didn’t find this passage disturbing! I could immediately see the relief on his face. He later explained that he was afraid we would think he was some kind of heretic or atheist because he dared to even wonder about a particular verse of Scripture. We went on to discuss this passage in its context. But before I share more with you about this specific case, I want to step back and look at this more general question: What do we do when we run across a passage of Scripture that really troubles us or even makes us doubt? How do we handle it when it seems the Bible might be wrong?

When facing such a problem, it’s easy to fall into one of two extremes. We can just rely on blind, irrational faith, insisting that if the Bible says it—no matter how illogical or silly it sounds—then it’s true. The problem with this approach is that we may be holding sacred our own mistaken idea of what the Scriptures are saying, not what the Bible actually communicates. (We’ll see some examples of this below.)

But then, at the slightest hint the Scriptures might be in error, we could also simply reject the Bible as inspired or infallible. We can assume that all the critics are right and the Bible is a merely human book, describing the beliefs of people in the distant past. The problem with doing this is that the Bible has a long track record of refuting its critics. (We’ll see some examples of this below also.) If we too easily reject the Scriptures, we might find ourselves rejecting the very Word of God.

So what do we do? It’s interesting that even Christians in the relatively early history of the church had to face difficult passages of Scripture. Sixteen hundred years ago, the pastor and scholar Augustine described how he approached these kinds of challenges. His methods are still sound for us today, and we’re going to look at each of his three suggestions. But we begin with a fourth step I’ve added (with which I’m sure Augustine would agree):

1. Pray
It often goes without saying, but the first step in studying the Bible—especially when struggling with something difficult to understand—should always be to pray. If the Bible was written through the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then we need the illumination of the Spirit to properly interpret the Scriptures. We need to humbly ask God to help us understand the heart of what he’s telling us in his Word.

2. Check the translation
It’s easy for us to get the wrong understanding of a Scripture passage because of an unclear translation. This is especially true of older translations that use more archaic English. I love the King James Version. I grew up with it; it was the only Bible I knew for years. But I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me with a passage they don’t understand in the KJV. When I show them the passage in another, more clear translation, the response is usually, “Ohhhhhh, that’s what this means.”

For instance, many people are confused by Jesus’ desire to “suffer the little children [Matthew 19:14],” not realizing that today this would be expressed as “allow the little children” or “don’t prevent the little children.” So if you’re reading something that doesn’t make sense, try reading it in a different translation. Many times, reading the same passage in different words can help you better understand the passage.

3. Check the notes
Augustine would say ‘check the manuscripts.’ This sounds overly technical and even intimidating to many ordinary Christians today. Thankfully, we can all check the manuscripts; all it takes is reading the notes in our Bibles. If you check the little footnotes in your Bible, you’ll see a few of them that say something like: “The oldest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain this passage.” These notes refer to verses that the vast majority of biblical scholars agree were accidentally added to the text centuries after it was originally written. We know these passages shouldn’t be included as Scripture. Here’s an example from John 5:4 (from the KJV):

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

This was apparently someone’s attempt to explain why the people were trying so hard to get into the pool. At first, this explanation was written in the margin, but it eventually was incorporated into the text itself. But—by comparing all the thousands of manuscripts we have available—textual scholars can ascertain the original reading and the spurious addition (and even determine the general timeframe when it was added). So we don’t have to accept this odd and superstitious reading as part of John’s Gospel.

Another example is the reference to handling snakes in Mark 16:18. Here again, practically all biblical scholars agree that this section of Mark was not part of the original. So after making sure you understand the translation of a difficult passage, check for notes to make sure it was genuinely part of the original text. (Anything that was added is likely to be problematic [like snake-handling], but be careful; just because a text is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not part of the original!)

4. Work to truly understand the passage
If you’ve verified that the translation actually means what it seems to mean, and there are no notes in your Bible indicating the passage isn’t authentic, then it’s time to push up your sleeves and do the work necessary to properly understand the passage. While the essentials of the gospel are crystal clear in Scripture, not everything is as easy to immediately grasp. Speaking of Paul’s letters to the churches, Peter wrote that “some of his comments are hard to understand [2 Peter 3:16].”

In passages such as John 6, we see Jesus teaching things to the people that were difficult to hear and accept. He knew that many of them were following him for superficial reasons, not because they understood the spiritual significance of what he said and did. So he would occasionally teach hard truths, to distinguish between those who had “ears to hear,” and those who weren’t willing to truly hear. We need to not reject a passage right away just because it disturbs or confuses us. We first need to make sure we accurately understand the passage.

In the passage we began with, Psalm 137:8-9, who is speaking? It’s not God. The author is one of the refugees from conquered, destroyed Jerusalem. He’s a Jew who now lives in the land of his conquerors: Babylon. He is overwrought with what has befallen his people and his homeland, and he longs for vengeance against the people of Babylon. He cries out for them to experience the same horrific fate they’ve perpetrated upon his people. The psalm is very expressive and even moving in places, but it doesn’t express the heart of God; it dramatically expresses the heart of these devastated Jewish refugees. Once we’ve done the work to understand the passage in context, it still disturbs us, but we don’t have to accept it as the will of God. [For more on this, see The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us.]

An earned benefit of the doubt
We don’t want to fall back on a blind, subjective faith in Scripture. On the other hand, we need to realize how often the Bible has proven itself accurate against the attacks of the critics. A classic example concerns the existence of the Hittites. The Old Testament refers many times to these people, portraying them as a major power and sometimes foe of Israel. Not long ago, if you had suggested in a secular university that this biblical portrayal was historically relevant, you would have been laughed out of class. Everyone knew the Hittites were a biblical myth, at most a minor, insignificant local tribe. That is until a few decades ago, when archaeologists began uncovering confirmation of the Hittite empire. As it turns out, these Hittites had a rich, longstanding culture, they were dominant over a widespread territory, the other major powers of the region considered them a threat, and they existed during the same timeframe the Bible describes. Score one for Scripture.

This same kind of scenario has played out again and again. Many times the Bible has proven itself to be far more accurate than the supposed “experts.” This doesn’t mean we should just assume it can never be wrong, especially in our interaction with skeptics and unbelievers. But it does mean that none of us should too quickly dismiss the claims of Scripture because of the current consensus of skeptical critics. We need to resist the temptation of a knee-jerk reaction, either in support of a particular reading of the Bible or in opposition to it. Especially for those who are followers of Christ, we must:

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages? [see above]

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

The scene is familiar to most of us. We’ve lost someone we care about, so we gather together to share in our grief. At some point, someone may stand and recite these words:

The LORD is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the LORD forever.

Many immediately recognize this as the 23rd Psalm. But no matter how many times we’ve heard the words before, they still have an effect on us. David’s expression of trust and confidence in his Shepherd somehow comforts and encourages us as well.

The first thing many of us learn about the Book of Psalms is that it’s the really big book in the middle of the Bible! If you’re trying to find a book in the Old Testament, it helps to know whether it comes before Psalms or after. But the psalms are much more than just a handy navigating tool. In fact, they’ve become some of the best-loved, most-remembered passages in Scripture. What is it about them that draws so many people to the psalms?

Prayers
To begin with, we need to recognize that the psalms are not teaching passages like the letters to the churches, and they’re not straightforward stories, such as in the Gospels and Old Testament history. The psalms are prayers. While, in most of Scripture we’re used to God speaking to his people, in the psalms his people spoke to God.

But these aren’t mere routine, go-through-the-motions prayers. These psalmists express overflowing joy and overwhelming sorrow. Because they prayed from their heart, conveying the depth of their emotions, their prayers still resonate with us. Their joy-filled words help us communicate our joy to God; their thankfulness helps us express our gratitude; the pain and confusion they share free us to cry out to God in our own pain and confusion. In speaking to God they speak to us, and help us to speak to God, too.

So, while the psalms do at times tell a story or refer to theological truths, this isn’t their primary focus. The psalms are much more centered on the emotional aspect of our relationship to God and our spiritual lives than they are delivering information. We should accept the psalms for what they are and not try to glean content from them they’re not intended to convey.

Poetry
The psalms are poetry, and we need to read them this way. They use a lot of colorful, descriptive language that we’re not intended to understand literally. When we’re told that God will “shelter you with his wings” we’re not to imagine God as a giant chicken, and when it says the mountains “skip like a calf” we shouldn’t assume some cataclysmic, geological event. This is the kind of poetic language we should expect in the psalms.

We also need to remember that the psalms are in the Old Testament. While some of the psalms look forward to Christ in amazing, prophetic ways, all of them were written long before Jesus was born. The people who wrote the psalms were still under the Old Covenant that God established with the nation of Israel, so they speak often of the Temple, sacrifices, the law, etc. Some of the psalms were used at special times, such as during Passover or the coronation of a new king. This doesn’t mean they can’t be meaningful to us now, but we need to understand them in their historical context.

Music
You’ll also notice they’re numbered. The psalms were prayers set to music, and the Book of Psalms was the songbook for the people of Israel. Each psalm is an individual unit and may focus on a completely different subject than the psalms before and after it. So when we’re reading the psalms, we don’t look at context quite the same as we do in other, more cohesive, books of the Bible.

Because the psalms are music, they’re structured in ways that show their lyrical nature. Many of the psalms have verses and a repeating chorus. Some are call-and-repeat type songs. All of them follow standard forms of Hebrew poetry. One of the most common forms (which we see throughout the psalms and in many other poetic sections in the Bible) is to have two lines say essentially the same thing in a slightly different, creative way:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
and their words to all the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

Do you see how each pair of lines is saying the same thing in slightly different ways? It’s helpful for us to know that this is a common way for Hebrew poetry to work. When the psalm says “the skies display his craftsmanship,” it’s saying essentially the same thing as “the heavens proclaim the glory of God.” If we try to contrast what’s happening “day after day” in verse 2 from what’s happening “night after night,” we’re missing the point—or better put, the poetry—of the psalm. When you read the psalms, read them the way you would song lyrics, sensing the emotional depth of what the psalmist is expressing.

Psalms to fit every need
Just as there are many different emotions involved in our spiritual lives, so there’s more than one kind of psalm. There are psalms of celebration:

Shout with joy to the LORD, all the earth!
Worship the LORD with gladness.
Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the LORD is God!
He made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good.
His unfailing love continues forever,
and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

Psalm 100

There are psalms of worshipful adoration:

O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary
and gazed upon your power and glory.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.

Psalm 63:1-5

There are psalms of repentance:

Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just. . . .
Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
Then I will teach your ways to rebels,
and they will return to you.
Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves;
then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
Unseal my lips, O Lord,
that my mouth may praise you.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.

Psalm 51:1-17

There are psalms to help us cry out to God when we’re confused and discouraged:

O LORD, low long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Turn and answer me, O LORD my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me.

Psalm 13

Notice how David (the author of this psalm) asks God, “How long will you forget me?” and “How long will you look the other way?” Does this mean God was actually forgetting him or looking the other way? No, it doesn’t. Remember these aren’t God’s words to David (and us), they’re David’s words to God. They tell us movingly how David felt. And this speaks to us because we’ve felt the same way. This encourages us that we can express to God exactly what we’re feeling. We can pour out our sorrow and frustration to God.

But also notice that David doesn’t give up on his faith in God. After crying out with such anguish—and probably contrary to everything he was feeling and experiencing—David chooses to cling to his hope in God: “But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice . . . I will sing to the LORD . . .”

We even see in the psalms that we can express our anger to God:

Bring shame and disgrace on those trying to kill me;
turn them back and humiliate those who want to harm me.
Blow them away like chaff in the wind—
a wind sent by the angel of the LORD.
Make their path dark and slippery,
with the angel of the LORD pursuing them.
I did them no wrong, but they laid a trap for me.
I did them no wrong, but they dug a pit to catch me.
So let sudden ruin come upon them!
Let them be caught in the trap they set for me!
Let them be destroyed in the pit they dug for me.

Psalm 35:4-8

Is this what God wants for David’s enemies? Not necessarily. This doesn’t tell us God wants to harm or destroy these people anymore than Psalm 13 tells us God forgot David. This is David’s prayer to God, not God’s answer. This perfectly reveals to us the heart of David, not the heart of God. And we can’t forget we now follow the perfect example of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, the one who prayed, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” But these psalms do show us we can express and confess our anger to God. After all, he already knows how mad we are. We can’t hide our anger from him! Better to pour out our feelings to God, than to vent our rage at someone else.

The psalms are a beautiful example of God meeting us where we’re at. No matter what emotions or circumstances we’re struggling with, God has provided us examples of other believers wrestling with the very same things. This should comfort us that we’re not alone in our experiences; other children of God have felt the same things, and God has faithfully brought them through to the other side. And these psalms should encourage us to do as they did: pour out our highest praise, deepest anguish, and most intense longings to the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. He is our Shepherd, and he will lovingly care for us.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us [see above]

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle