The Comfort of Context

If you have engaged in the habit of Scripture memory, then most of your attention has probably been on working through one or two verses at a time from a variety of places in God’s Word. One week you may be working on Ephesians 2:8-9, and the next has you focusing on Proverbs 3:5-6. Not only are most of the Scripture memory systems set up this way, but this approach is helpful for those moments when temptation approaches. Those moments can come in the most inconvenient of circumstances, the kind of circumstances where it’s hard to dedicate a lot of time and mental energy to rehearsing God’s truth. So, a short verse or two can be perfect for redirecting our minds when the pressure is on.

However, there is great value in taking these snippets of Scripture and becoming acquainted with their context. This is true, of course, so that we interpret them correctly, but also because there is often a significant practical impact in seeing what comes before and after these texts. For instance, consider how much more hope we receive when we look at the context of these three well-known snippets of Scripture.

Lamentations 3:22-23
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.”

You have likely sung these words, or perhaps, you have them in a frame hanging on a wall somewhere in your house. You may have also texted these verses to a brother or sister who is struggling through a difficult season of life. This has definitely been a “go-to” text for me in ministering to those who are hurting. When we are discouraged, we need to grab hold of rock-solid truth about God’s character to comfort us. These verses are powerful.

But the previous verse indicates that we should look further back in the chapter to understand things more clearly. Verse 21 is a contrast to what comes directly before it: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” In the verses preceding verse 21, it is clear that Jeremiah, the author, did not have hope. In fact, his words sound downright dark as he grieves over God’s judgment on Judah. Even a small sampling reveals this clearly: “He has made my flesh and skin waste away; he has broken my bones” (v. 4); “he is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding” (v. 10); “he has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood” (v. 15); “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is” (v. 17).

What a difference there is between these verses and those that follow verse 21! As you read verses 1-20 in Lamentations 3, you don’t expect verses 22-23… but there they are. This chapter shows us that when darkness seems all-consuming, the Spirit can use His Word to bring the light of hope. You don’t see this unless you give attention to context.

Psalm 73:25-26
“Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

We have here another set of familiar verses that are often quoted in sermons or devotional material. They have rightly been used to point to God as our superior delight, whether on earth or in heaven. We would all agree, I’m sure, that reading these verses by themselves is truly enriching. But again, their context draws out the power of these words to minister to the struggling soul.

These verses were chosen for the end of Psalm 73, and in the previous verses Asaph is clear about where he came from to get to this place. In verse 2, he tells us that his “steps had nearly slipped,” and in verse 3 he tells us why: “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Asaph’s heart had grown hard as he looked upon the comfort and ease of those who openly embraced immorality. In fact, it had gotten so bad that, as he looked at his own pursuit of holiness, he determined it was a waste, since his life was so hard (vv. 13-14).

But then, God revealed to Asaph the bitter end that the wicked are sliding toward, and he repented. He saw his sin for what it was and said to God, “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you” (vv. 21-22). All of this precedes Asaph’s glorious declaration in verses 25-26. Divine grace turned him around so that he saw God as his true treasure instead of the empty prosperity of this temporal life. Imagine the hope this provides to those who are caught up in sin. They are not too far gone. God can bring them from “I was like a beast toward you” to “There is nothing on earth I desire besides you”!

Psalm 16:11
“You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

This is a verse that has been dear to me since my early days as a Christian in college, and I have assigned it for memorization loads of times in discipleship and counseling. It clearly serves to remind us where we are to seek pleasure. If we follow our sinful choices back to their root within our hearts, we will find that, on some level, we were seeking joy outside of God. This verse points us back to God in whom there is no lack of eternal joy.

But earlier in the context of Psalm 16, David shows us the flipside of this truth. In verse 4, he writes, “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply.” The context of verse 11 exposes the ugly truth about what happens when we chase after something else in the place of God. Writing about this verse, Charles Spurgeon says, “When we have given our heart to idols, sooner or later we have had to smart for it. Near the roots of our self-love all our sorrows lie.”¹ As we pay attention to the context of this important verse, we are given even more reason to turn our feet to God for satisfaction. Anything else we exalt to the place of God will not give us the pleasure it promises. In the end, our idols will be shown as liars, and we will know it because of the sorrow that surrounds us because of them.

Brothers and sisters, we don’t need to stop memorizing select verses throughout Scripture. The texts above stand as a call for us not to abandon the internalization of such verses, but to remember the practical impact of recognizing that those verses are not in isolation. Yes, an awareness of context helps us interpret Scripture correctly, and it also helps us apply it more powerfully

Note: This article originally appeared on We encourage you to visit the Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship where you can find helpful, biblical resources by a number of trusted pastors and authors.

Brent Osterberg




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