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Out of context: “God’s word won’t return void.”

Out of Context

Presenting Out of Context, a new series on scriptures which are popularly quoted, but are used in a way that has little or nothing to do with why they were originally said. They’re proof-texted to suit the quoter’s purposes, not God’s. The icon is a good example of it: It’s the “And Jesus Wept” statue at St. Joseph’s Church in Oklahoma City. But you’ve likely seen it around the Internet, taken out of context and renamed “Facepalm Jesus.” The facepalm, in American culture, is not a sign of sorrow, but frustration at other people’s stupidity. (Whether sorrow or frustration is what I mean by this icon, I leave to you to determine.)

Today’s out-of-context scripture comes from Isaiah 55.11: “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; / It shall not return to me void.” (NKJV) Christians typically quote this verse under one of two circumstances.

One is that they’re laying claim to a promise of God. They found something God said in the scriptures, and they choose to believe that this verse applies to them personally, regardless of what God originally meant by it, and the people he said it to. Because it doesn’t matter what God originally meant, or those he said it to: Simply because God said it, at some point in history, it’s imbued with some kind of supernatural divine power. It’ll work on anyone. So I can claim it for myself. I can claim it for others. So can they. We can use it out of context however we wish. It’s not void of power simply because I’m using it wrong. It’s God’s word, and God’s word is never void.

The other is related to it: They’ve been quoting bible to a skeptic, and the skeptic won’t believe them, no matter how many verses they throw at them. This is precisely what Jesus meant by throwing pearls to swine, or giving holy things to dogs (Mt 7.6) —what they’ve preached has fallen on deaf ears, who choose to mock it rather than receive it, and they’ve wasted their time. But they don’t choose to believe they have wasted their time, for “God’s word won’t return void.” Every quotation of scripture, at any time for whatever reason—stupid or not—has that supernatural divine power attached to it. It’ll perform some kind of voodoo on the person whom they’ve thrown it at; it’ll gnaw at their conscience until it finally works on them, and makes them see the light.

The general idea: Bible verses are magic spells.

Sorcery.

Based on this way of thinking, I can take any verse I want from the bible, and make it work my will. If I want to live in joy and peace, all I have to do is find some prophecy where God promises other people joy and peace, (Is 55.12) and claim that for myself. If I want the ability to command other people to do my bidding, I just have to find a spell—I mean scripture—that gives me that power; something that God promised to the ancient Jews, likely, (Is 55.5) and claim it, and voilá, I have that power too. Because God’s word won’t return void. Right?

There’s a lot of demented teaching out there about the promises of God, and it’s all based on the idea of the magic bible, and the ability to seize divine power for ourselves; to name things and claim things because God promised us these things. Which is totally valid when he really did promise us things, but when in fact he did no such thing, we’re actually practicing sorcery.

Yes, sorcery—the fraudulent gaining of power and wealth through spiritual manipulation. It’s an attempt to manipulate God, and sometimes others, into giving us what we want. It doesn’t work on God, of course; God is under no obligation to give us anything other than what he said he would. And when we’re not following him, he’s actually obligated himself to prove us wrong and come against us. (Is 13.11) But where sorcery can work is that we might convince others that our magic is real, use it to defraud them, and spread this abominable teaching. And of course we’ll convince ourselves that it works; that all our “prosperity,” as we call it, is a blessing from God, instead of coincidence, or a sign that we’ve in fact sold ourselves to the things of this world. We’ll just maneuver ourselves further and further away from a true relationship with him, in favor of more material goods, more fleeting happiness, more relationships based on gaining power instead of serving others… and more idolatry.

When we disregard what God means to say in the scriptures, and replace it with what we would rather have it mean, we ultimately disregard God himself. We have no relationship with him. We instead have a relationship with an imaginary, made-up, genie-in-a-lamp type of God. But instead of a lamp, we have a bible.

In context:
God’s word does what God wants it to.

How do you rebuke someone who quotes bible out of context? You quote it in context. You quote the whole passage. Like so.

Seek the LORD while you can find him.

Call on him now while he is near.

Let the wicked change their ways

and banish the very thought of doing wrong.

Let them turn to the LORD that he may have mercy on them.

Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD.

“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.

For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so my ways are higher than your ways

and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.

The rain and snow come down from the heavens

and stay on the ground to water the earth.

They cause the grain to grow,

producing seed for the farmer

and bread for the hungry.

It is the same with my word.

I send it out, and it always produces fruit.

It will accomplish all I want it to,

and it will prosper everywhere I send it.”

—Isaiah, Isaiah 55.6-11 NLT

The context of this passage is that God forgives generously. When people turn away from evil, he has mercy on them, and restores them. If you don’t believe it—as many don’t; as Isaiah’s listeners didn’t—God points out that he isn’t petty and vengeful like we are: “My ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” If he says he’s going to forgive, take it to the bank: He will forgive. His word will always do what he says it will: “I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to.”

In other translations “it always produces fruit” is rendered “it shall not return to me empty,” (ESV, NIV, NRSV) or as The Message puts it, “not come back empty-handed,” and the KJV puts it, “return unto me void.” The original, lo yashúv eláy reyqám, means “not returning to me empty,” empty like a hand, a sack, a jar, or a scabbard. But “empty” is also used as a metaphor for “unsuccessful” or “for no reason.” It doesn’t mean that God’s words don’t lack supernatural power, and are in fact full of the power to do whatever we wish. It means, more simply, that God doesn’t say things for no reason. There is always a context and purpose behind anything God says.

Ironically, taking this verse out of context, and using it to defend the use of bible verses as magic spells, violates the very purpose of this verse. It’d be hilarious… if it weren’t so twisted.

The proper idea: God’s word does what God wants it to. It prospers wherever he sends it. Not what we want; not where we send it. Whenever we misquote God, it’s no longer his word; it’s ours. We’ve taken it away from him, and abused it; we’ve made the sacred into something profane, a mockery of his original intent, like when the devil quotes it. And our words have no creative power without God behind them. They only have destructive power. They drive us and God apart, not close.

So: You want prosperity, growth, a stronger relationship with God, and to have his wishes fulfilled more than your own? Learn what God really means to say through the scriptures. Read it in context. In context, it won’t return void. Out of context, it’s nothing but void.