How to Apply Scripture When It Does Not Speak Directly and Personally to You
Here is a core dilemma for Bible readers.
On the one hand, we are told that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Likewise, we believe that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
But sometimes it is hard to see how. As David Powlison says, “Most of the Bible does not speak directly and personally to you.” He lists some examples:
How do you “apply” the stories in Genesis?
What about genealogies and census data?
The life stories of Esther, Job, Samson, or Paul?
The distribution of land and villages in Joshua?
The history of Israel’s decline detailed through 1 and 2 Kings?
The prophetic woes scorching Moab, Philistia, Egypt, and Babylon, fulfilled so long ago?
The ruminations of Ecclesiastes?
The Gospel stories showing Jesus in action?
The New Testament’s frequent preoccupation with Jew-Gentile relations?
The apocalyptic images in the Revelation?
He goes on:
The Bible’s stories, histories, and prophecies—even many of the commands, teachings, promises, and prayers—take thoughtful work in order to reapply with current relevance.
If you receive them directly—as if they speak directly to you, about you, with your issues in view—you will misunderstand and misapply Scripture. For example, the angel’s command to Joseph, “take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt” (Matt. 2:13), is not a command to anyone today to buy a ticket to Egypt!
Those who attempt to take the entire Bible as if it directly applies today end up distorting the Bible. It becomes an omni-relevant magic book teeming with private messages and meanings. God does not intend that his words function that way.
“These passages,” he writes, “do apply. But most of the Bible applies differently from the passages tilted toward immediate relevance.”
What you read applies by extension and analogy, not directly. Less sizzle, but quietly significant. In one sense, such passages apply exactly because they are not about you. Understood rightly, such passages give a changed perspective.
They locate you on a bigger stage.
They teach you to notice God and other people in their own right.
They call you to understand yourself within a story—many stories—bigger than your personal history and immediate concerns.
They locate you within a community far wider than your immediate network of relationships.
And they remind you that you are always in God’s presence, under his eye, and part of his program.
Powlison gives a couple of examples of applying “less-direct passages.” One of them is Psalm 21:1, “O LORD, in your strength the king rejoices.”
The psalm is not talking about you, and it is not you talking—not directly. A train of connected truths apply this psalm to you, leading you out of yourself.
First, David lived and wrote these words, but Jesus Christ most fully lived—is now living, and will finally fulfill—this entire psalm. He is the greatest human king singing this song of deliverance; and he is also the divine Lord whose power delivers. We know from the perspective of NT fulfillment that this psalm is overtly by and about Jesus, not about any particular individual.
Second, you participate in the triumph of your King. You are caught up in all that the psalm describes, because you are in this Christ. So pay attention to his experience, because he includes you.
Third, your participation arises not as a solo individual but in company with countless brothers and sisters. You most directly apply this psalm by joining with fellow believers in a chorus of heartfelt gladness: “O Lord, we will sing and praise your power” (Ps. 21:13). The king’s opening joy in God’s power has become his people’s closing joy.
Finally, figuratively, you are also kingly in Christ. In this sense, Jesus’ experience of deliverance (the entire psalm) does apply to your life. Having walked through the psalm as an expression of the exultant triumph of Christ Jesus himself, you may now make it your experience too. You could even adapt Psalm 21 into the first person, inserting “I/me/my” in place of “the king” and “he/him/his.” It would be blasphemous to do that at first. It is fully proper and your exceeding joy to do this in the end. This is a song in which all heaven will join. As you grasp that your brothers and sisters share this same goal, you will love them and serve their joy more consistently.
—David Powlison, “Reading the Bible for Personal Application,” in the ESV Study Bible and forthcoming in the collection of essays, Understanding Scripture: An Overview of the Bible’s Origin, Reliability, and Meaning (Crossway, 2012).