Context is Key

A pastor sits down to prepare Sunday’s sermon. As he opens his Bible, a question begs for an answer, “What does the text mean?”

Proper meaning can only be understood within context. The old adage still stands, “A text without a context is a pretext.” But, how much context is needed for each text? The answer is a text-by-text decision. As a case study in the importance of knowing the immediate context and being aware of the greater context in which a passage is placed, consider the story of Mephibosheth.

In 2 Samuel 8, David is installed as King of Israel and embarks upon a bloody conquest of the surrounding territory. He eliminates his adversaries and all threats to the throne. As David looks up from battle, he asks the question of 2 Samuel 9:1, “Who’s next?” This question and the corresponding story of Mephibosheth can only be grasped in the immediate context of 2 Samuel 8 and the greater context of 1 and 2 Samuel.

For most kings in David’s day, the best way to bring about peace was to kill all who opposed you. In 2 Samuel 8, David set out to establish his reign through the deaths of his enemies. 2 Samuel 8:5 gives a glimpse of just one day of David’s conquests, “When the Syrians of Damascus came to help Hadadezer king of Zobah, David killed twenty-two thousand of the Syrians.”

David established his rule by defeating, killing and humiliating his enemies. It was a very bloody time. In fact, there was so much blood spilt by the hands of David that when he wanted to build a temple for God, God commended David for his desire but would not allow him to build the temple. It is within this context that we find 2 Samuel 9:1, “Now David said, ‘Is there still anyone who is left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?’”

When I first read this verse, I thought, “Yeah right, kindness. Is that another way of saying, ‘That I might chop off his head’”? David had just killed thousands of enemies. Saul had made himself an enemy of David. David had not made himself an enemy of Saul. Now Saul is dead and his heir should be king, but because of Saul’s disobedience God had rejected him and his family and chosen David.

Humanly speaking, any male from Saul’s line should be considered a threat to David’s throne. So when we find David’s question in 2 Samuel 9:1, we have to ask what David is really up to here. Is it really kindness that David is seeking to show to a member of Saul’s family? Or is David about to rack up another number in the ongoing body count?

The key phrase of 9:1 is, “kindness for Jonathan’s sake.” The Hebrew word that is translated as “kindness” is hesed. It speaks of God’s covenantal faithfulness. What happened between Jonathan and David was a covenant. At least three times in 1 Samuel David and Jonathan made or affirmed a covenant. The basis of the covenant is that Jonathan recognized God had rejected his father Saul and chosen David to one day be king over all of Israel. Therefore, the two men agreed that in whatever may happen to either one of them, they would show kindness to each other’s family.

In 2 Samuel 9, Saul and Jonathan are now dead. David is king. He has all the power. Will he keep his covenant? This context is key to understanding the story of Mephibosheth, the descendant of Saul (2 Samuel 4:4).

Apart from understanding the immediate context of a passage of Scripture and at least being aware of the greater book context, a preacher may miss the point of a specific passage. In the story of Mephibosheth, the grace of David is only understood once the greater context is taken into account. In light of 1 and 2 Samuel, the main point of 2 Samuel 9 may be stated as follows, “Grace reaches beyond obligation to bless others.” Surveying the context of a given passage of Scripture will add understanding and depth to preaching. Without context, we may miss the point God intended. Thus, context is key.

—Paul Michael Vacca is the Associate Pastor of First Baptist Watauga.

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