We read it in devotional books. We sing it in church. We meditate on it in our quiet times. God’s command in Psalm 46:10–“Be still, and know that I am God.”
Unfortunately, the verse has nothing to do with what we usually think it does–being quiet before God, not being frantic and busy, or maybe getting ourselves ready to hear a sermon. No, it’s not about any of these things. This is a verse which has been violently ripped out of context time and time again. What does it really mean?
The answer is not hard to find. The prior verse clearly explains it. Here you go:
He [the LORD] makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
“Be still” means “Stop fighting wars.” It’s a verse about international politics, not personal piety. God stops warfare. He is above all nations. When he smashes armies, no one has a chance. So get with the program and realize God is in charge of history before it’s too late. As Derek Kidner so succinctly puts it, this is a vision of “tranquility on the far side of judgment.”
Yes, the Bible does encourage regular times of quiet and prayer (Mark 1:35), meditating on Scripture (Psalm 1:2) and enjoying the presence of Jesus (Luke 10:38-42). Just not in Psalm 46.
legitimate use of Psalm 46:10 is possible, however. In Mark 4:35-41 we read of Jesus being asleep in a boat while the disciples fear for their lives in a storm. After being wakened by the disciples, Jesus says to the storm, “Quiet! Be still!” Immediately the wind stops and the waves cease.
The stunned disciples ask, “Who is this?” Yet Jesus has just implied an answer.
In echoing Psalm 46:10, Jesus expects the disciples (and Mark expects his readers) to complete the quotation, “and know that I am God.” Jesus equates his act of stopping a raging storm with God’s work of stopping raging armies. Now that is worth meditating on.
What’s your nomination for “The Most Misused Verse in the Bible”?
14 thoughts on “The Most Misused Verse in the Bible”
Revelation 3:16 when people use it for “God would rather you be non-Christian” (absolutely wrong)
Revelation 3:20 purely for Jesus asking us to invite him into our ‘hearts’ (totally not the context either, tho the bible does use it in other ways)
I have two that usually come up. Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13. Jeremiah 29:11 is often used toward the individual and that God has a prosperous plan for each and every individual. But in the context of the passage, it is said to an entire community who will find themselves in exile for multiple generations.
As for Phil 4:13 is not saying that we can literally do ALL THINGS, it points back to the previous verse where Paul talks about being content in all circumstances.
Unfortunately there are so many oft-misused verses that it’s difficult to nominate one for “most misused.” The first two to come to my mind are Philippians 4:13 (a perennial favorite in verbal declaration as well as all manner of Christian paraphernalia) and Matthew 18:20 (you can’t attend many prayer meetings without hearing it).
Thank you for this post, and for choosing the specific passage that you did!
Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse that was recently brought into question for me. I’m not able to provide cross-references pertaining to its true meaning, but I’m finding that it is often quoted in a context that, to me, seems incorrect.
I’ve watched people use it to justify their decisions, rather than humbly & continually seek the Lord. (Jer. 29:12&13) The passage is more about the faithfulness of God than his blessing on our so-called plans, even if they are his plans.
Jer. 29:10-14 – 10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.
I committed to following Jesus 13 years ago, and have continued to try to wrap my mind around the idea that more is always possible when we read Scripture. (Sadly, this idea is not often discussed around me, and is a newer concept.) With that said, do you think that God redeems even the misunderstood meaning when people misuse passages? Learning Scripture is a process, no?
John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (KJV) = “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”(NRSV). It is de-christologized to become a mantra for warriors.
Hi Catie: That’s a great question about God redeeming our misunderstandings of Scripture. While I don’t think it always happens, I think it can and does. Sometimes, unfortunately, people use Scripture as a weapon to harm and hurt people and to give themselves power. At the same time, I think there are cases where God is gracious to us in our weakness and failure. We are all in process and never fully arrive. Knowing that helps us maintain a humble attitude to God, toward Scripture and toward others–exactly what is needed to allow God’s grace to have it’s effect on us. As I said, often we have the right teaching from the Bible, we just manage to get it from the wrong verses.
Great topic, Andy. Eric Bargerhuff has published a helpful book looking at this very thing: The Most Misused Verses in the Bible. http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/the-most-misused-verses-in-the-bible/336090
Thanks for the tip, David. I wasn’t aware of the book, but it sounds very helpful.
Be still-a call to stop fighting or turning of attention away from the disturbing/threatening things we face and onto the living God. I am sorry but I don’t think it is as much of an obvious misinterpretation. The big context of the psalm is reassurance and focus on The Lord as “refuge an strength. Ever present in trouble time”. A call to be still can be a call to refocus on Him -stop looking at the natural disasters (vv 2-3) or the trouble that the great nations stirs (v.6-9). God’s place is one of joy (not fear) and secure (not uncertain) (vv4-5)
to me it makes more sense to say Stop the worry and refocus on Me (i.e. a more contemplative application) than the political application suggested.
Context of the whole Psalm for me gives more credence to the interpretation that you argue against.
Jon, thanks for your comment. I want to commend you (seriously) for your thoughtful response. That is actually my primary goal here–not to convince everyone of my particular interpretation (though I do think it’s pretty good). More importantly it is to encourage people to take the text seriously, look at it thoughtfully and in context (of the surrounding verses, the surrounding chapters, the surrounding books of the Bible and the surrounding culture). And that’s the direction you are definitely going. So blessings and carry on!
Andy- thanks for that response. May I address one thing with you. Using the phrase “This is a verse which has been violently ripped out of context time and time again” may not encourage dialog but rather judgmentalism. If you desire to have people consider your interpretation don’t judge their interpretive action, and assume they did not do due diligence.
May your work at IVP continue to grow in grace and truth
I echo other’s nominations of Jeremiah 29:11. I’ve come to really despise when people quote it to me in conversations about “why I’m still single.” They’re trying to be encouraging, but their underlying assumption when using this verse is that God’s good and hope-filled plans for my future must include marriage. I haven’t yet had the courage to suggest maybe they’re taking that verse out of context, and that while God very well may have good plans for my life, I’m not assured that a husband is included.
I wholeheartedly agree that Psalm 46:10 is badly misapplied. Now tell that to the many who are espousing contemplative prayer with this verse.
Another verse misused and abused – by non-Christians and Christians alike – is Matthew 7:1
Craig, I agree. When it comes to Matthew 7:1, many people are at least confused.
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