“If you really want to understand the Bible, ignore the chapter numbers and verse numbers. They are artificial, a late addition to the text, and often interrupt thoughts, stories and even sentences.” These words from one of my Bible professors have greatly impacted my approach to scripture. Now whenever I see a verse quoted somewhere or standing alone, I always read what comes before and after in the text to see if there is a wider context into which it is speaking.
There is no more obvious lifting out of context than what appears on church signs in the USA. Those signs are often a source of amusement (and embarrassment). Originally, they existed to give information about worship dates and times, but have increasingly been used to promote “Christian” belief or lifestyle. I have “Christian” in quotes because often the advice given is worded awkwardly; at times, they completely miss the mark or could easily fit into another religious lifestyle. Sometimes, though, they have just a verse of scripture. One I saw recently said, ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath.’ I had forgotten this proverb. Hearing it again rippled through my soul like a glide across harp strings and then it landed like a waterfall on dry land. How often have I seen that happen!
My father-in-law was a master of the gentle word. His friends and colleagues have told us stories of how he with a few soft-spoken words kept volcanos from erupting both at church and at work. His gentleness was in stark contrast to a couple that we experienced just after driving past that sign. We were on the way to a lake to swim. While there a car pulled up. Long before we heard the engine, we could hear the couple inside yelling profanities at each other. Their heated (and loud) argument lasted the entire time they were there walking, swimming, sunbathing. The anger was at such an awful pitch that when one of them approached my husband, he actually felt threatened, and then quite relieved that all they wanted to know was the time! I wondered how long and how heated that argument would have been if just one of them had answered gently.
When we got home, I looked up the proverb and read the verses surrounding it. That’s when I saw something interesting. ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath’ probably belongs to the verse before it! Read all of this together: “A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favour, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully. A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Have you ever thought that perhaps the ‘soft answer’ is to be given to wrath that is deserved? Like many other proverbs that describe wise versus foolish behaviour, this one is saying ‘look you have been a fool once and received wrath, for pete’s sake, be humble when you answer the king’! In other words, don’t be a fool twice over. A gentle answer in this situation will save your life. A gentle answer in many areas of modern life may not be needed to save your life, but it can save your marriage, your friendships, your congregation. It is a habit well worth nourishing.