Eisegesis gone wrong...awfully wrong
Eisegesis—which is the practice of reading your own meaning into someone else’s words—is always wrong. In the Christian Faith we normally use this word to talk about preachers who tend to go to a passage of Scripture and read their own meaning into the passage. It is the opposite of exegesis, where you seek the meaning of a text from the text itself.
So, if it is always wrong then why am I speaking of “Eisegesis gone wrong…awfully wrong”? It was because of my recent experience. I was driving home when I turned on the car radio and found myself listening to a sermon on Luke 15:8, which says, “What woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?”
A sermon gone wrong
The preacher was seeking to persuade his hearers to bring candles when they come to church on Friday for their overnight prayer meeting. His first point was “the loss”. This woman lost one of her silver pieces. He asked the question, “What have you lost? Is it your husband or wife to someone else? Is it your job or your business? Is it your pregnancy or your reputation? Is it your health through disease or an accident? What have you lost?”
The preacher’s second point was “the candle”. This woman lit a candle when she lost her piece of silver. The preacher went on to say, “Have you lit your candle? That is what you must do on Friday. Bring a candle and I will anoint it with powerful prayers, and then you can light it.”
The preacher’s third and final point was “the seeking”. This woman sought what she lost diligently. The preacher appealed to his listeners to come to the prayer meeting and together with him they would seek what they had lost through persevering prayer. He pointed to this woman who sought until she found what she had lost and appealed to those who would come to make sure they pray until they have a breakthrough.
By this time you can well imagine that I was feeling like punching the car radio. Yes, eisegesis is always wrong but when it reaches these levels of wrongness then it has gone awfully wrong. Surely, even common sense should make people see the error of this kind of preaching. The woman lit the candle in order to see better in dark places in the room. In fact, some versions use the word "lamp". It was simply a source of light. And yet I could not believe the many “Amens” I was hearing. You can be sure that many people went to church that Friday with candles hoping for anointed prayers and a breakthrough so that they could get their spouses or jobs or health or reputations back!
Context! Context! Context!
The first principle of the interpretation of Scripture must be adherence to the context. If this man or his hearers had adhered to this principle they would have been saved from jumping off the cliff. In the context we are told that the reason why Jesus spoke these words was because the Pharisees and Scribes were murmuring against him for fraternising with tax collectors and sinners. He then gave them three parables. The first was about a shepherd who lost one of his one hundred sheep and left the ninety-nine to find the missing one. The second is the one about the woman losing one of her ten pieces of silver and going to look for it. The third is about a father who loses one of his two sons and throws a party when the lost son returns home.
What is Jesus teaching in these three parables? He is teaching his hearers about God’s love for the lost—for sinners. God does not wait indifferently until they sort themselves out but rather he goes out of his way to get them back into the fold. And when they show any initial signs of repentance, he goes after them and covers them with kisses. So, between Jesus and the Pharisees, it was Jesus who was representing the Father’s heart. That was his message.
How can we apply this text today? It is not by challenging believers to come with candles to the church prayer meeting. It is by challenging believers about their attitude to sinners. Are we willing to leave behind the warmth of Christian fellowship in order to reach out to those who are lost in sin? And when those who are conspicuous for their wickedness show up at church, do we go out of our way to draw them to God or do we keep them at arms-length lest they morally contaminate our children? That is the appropriate application.
There is nothing in the context about losing wives, husbands, jobs, health or reputations. There is nothing in the text about us going to church on Friday evening with candles. There is nothing in the text about us praying until there is a breakthrough. Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!
Where have we gone wrong?
I am very concerned with the way in which this kind of erroneous preaching has become so commonplace in evangelical churches. Where did our teachers go wrong? I doubt that they taught us eisegesis in Bible College. We were all taught how to do faithful exegesis. Then how come what I heard on the radio is no longer the exception to the rule? I hear it literally everyday, especially on radio and television. It has become an epidemic.
What we preachers need to realise is that when anyone speaks he intends to communicate something. The way we find out what he was trying to communicate is not by the immediate words alone but also by the context in which those words were spoken. If I said, “God is like a chicken,” that statement alone can either be very offensive or heart-warming depending on the context. If we were talking about a chicken in terms of a bird that is very fearful and quick to run away at the scent of trouble, surely that would be offensive because God is not like that. He rules the universe and is in absolute control.
However, if we were talking about a chicken in terms of the way it covers its chicks under its wings to protect them when a vulture gets close, surely that would be comforting because God is like that. The Bible actually uses that picture about him. Psalm 91:4 says, “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.” So, instead of being offended by that statement we would be encouraged.
Scripture is like that. When the Holy Spirit spoke through the various prophets and apostles, there was a message he wanted to communicate. Our first task before we attempt to preach on those words of Scripture is to discover what the Holy Spirit was seeking to say to the original hearers or readers and then seek to apply what he was saying to today’s hearers. We have no right to take a piece of it and make it say what we want to make it say to achieve our own end. No! That is a serious misrepresentation. It is criminal. We must never do that.
So, let us all be, first and foremost, Bible students for the rest of our lives. Let us study the Bible, not to prepare sermons, but to hear the voice of God speaking to us through a faithful exegesis of Scripture. Let us slowly but surely build libraries by acquiring books that help us to understand the books of the Bible. Yes, books are expensive. But if we are going to avoid the kind of eisegesis that I alluded to earlier, we had better sell a shirt or two in order to buy one or two very good commentaries. We owe it to our people to teach them God’s word faithfully. If we do not do so, sermons about “candles” will continue to be the regular diet in our pulpits. The result being that we will continue to send into the world believers who are suffering from spiritual malnutrition and thus vulnerable to every heresy that comes into town.
(Banner photo, courtesy of www.preaching.org)