“How can you say, ‘We are wise,
for we have the law of the Lord,’
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
has handled it falsely?”
Jeremiah 8:8 (NIV)
A few years ago, I was working with a group of leaders who were tasked with teaching the book of 1 Corinthians to a larger gathering of Jesus’ followers. Before we began, I made a copy of the text without any of the chapter or verse numbers listed. I changed the type face to a font that resembled actual handwriting and printed it and handed it out. I encouraged the team to put themselves in the sandals of a leader of the Jesus followers in ancient Corinth and to read the words as they were originally intended: as a personal letter from their friend Paul. It was a transformative exercise for us.
One of the things that I have to always remember on this chapter-a-day journey is that the chapter and verse designations were not part of the original writings for centuries. Manuscripts as early as the 4th century AD contain some evidence of text being divided into chapters, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that Steven Langton added the chapter divisions and it wasn’t until 1551 that a man named Robert Estienne added the verse definitions. In 1560, the first translation of the entire Great Story referred to as the Geneva Bible, employed chapters and verses throughout. They’ve been used ever since.
Chapters and verses are an essential method for study, referencing, and cross-referencing. That’s why they remain. However, in my forty-plus years of studying, I’ve found that they can also hinder my reading, understanding, and interpretation. Chapters and verses gain individual attention apart from the context of the whole in which they were intended when written. Individual verses get pulled out of context. In other cases, like today’s chapter, the entire chapter is merely a piece of a larger message. I can easily read and contemplate just today’s chapter alone without connecting it to the chapters before and after into which they fit.
In today’s chapter, I noticed that the Hebrew people of Jeremiah’s day were saying, “We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord.” Something clicked and I remembered something I read in yesterday’s chapter: “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” Both chapters are really part of one message or series of messages to be read together as a unit.
Taken together, I realize that there’s a theme in Jerry’s message that I would never see if I confine myself to each individual chapter and don’t consider them together as a whole. The Hebrew people of Jeremiah’s day had misplaced their trust. They trusted in Solomon’s Temple, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. They trusted in the “Law of the Lord” which had recently been rediscovered and made known to them. They had not, however, placed their trust in the God who gave them the Law, nor the God who inspired the building of the temple. They were treating the temple and the Law the same way they treated the other gods who they had worshipped, sometimes within the temple they were worshipping. The temple and the Law were basically good luck charms like all the other stars, idols, and pagan images they worshipped along with them.
In the quiet this morning, I thought about people whom I’ve met and known along my life journey whom I’ve observed treating their religion and their local church building, much like the people Jerry is addressing in his message, as good luck charms. When trouble comes in life (and trouble always comes in life – God even says so) I have observed their shock and anger. I have heard them express rage at God for not warding off their troubles and making their lives free of difficulty, pain, or sorrow. But God never promised that.
In fact, when Adam and Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit of their own free will, God said specifically that the consequences would include pain and conflict, sweat and toil, along with death and grief on our earthly journeys. Going to church and dressing my life up in religious traditions does not save me from any of those earthly realities. However, a trusting relationship with God gives me what I need to endure troubles in such a way that qualities like faith and perseverance, peace and maturity, along with joy and hope hone me to become more like Jesus, who endured more undeserved trouble than I could ever imagine and did so on my behalf.
Once again, a Bob Dylan lyric came to mind as I pondered these things this morning:
Trouble in the city, trouble in the farm
You got your rabbit’s foot, you got your good-luck charm
But they can’t help you none when there’s trouble…
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.