The historical context is an important piece of the puzzle we call Bible study. By placing yourself in the shoes of the original audience, you are more likely to grasp the intended message for them in their day. And when you have done so, you will unsurprisingly find the Bible becoming even more — not less — relevant to our lives today.
While the Bible was written for us (1 Cor 10:11), it was not written to us. When we read the Bible, we are reading someone else’s mail.
This is why context matters. It is not appropriate to isolate sentences and sentiments and use them to our own ends. We must grasp the author’s main point to his original audience. We must consider how that main point either looks forward to Christ or reflects back upon him. And only when we have done those things are we in a position to consider how the text ought to produce change in anyone’s life today.
Historical Context Defined
We’ve spent much space on this blog giving examples of how the literary context matters. But that is not the only kind of context.
One other such context is the historical context. How does the historical situation of this text affect the way we read it? And by “historical situation,” I’m not referring to cultural practices or artifacts within the text. I’m talking about the real-life situation of the author and audience of the text. What was going in the lives of the author and audience that caused this person to write this text to these people at this time?
We cannot answer that question with certainty—or even high probability—for every book of the Bible. But whenever we can answer it, we ought to make sure that answer guides us whenever we seek to understand a text.
Have you ever noticed the difference between how the books of Kings and Chronicles describe the moral character of King Abijah (Abijam) of Judah?
In the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam… Abijam began to reign over Judah… He walked in all the sins that his father did before him, and his heart was not wholly true to Yahweh his God, as the heart of David his father. Nevertheless, for David’s sake Yahweh his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem. (1 Kings 15:1-4)
The Abijah stood up…and said… “But as for us, Yahweh is our God, and we have not forsaken him… Behold, God is with us at our head, and his priests with their battle trumpets to sound the call to battle against you. O sons of Israel, do not fight against Yahweh, the God of your fathers, for you cannot succeed.” (2 Chron 13:4-12)
Both Kings and Chronicles go out of their way to label each king of Judah as doing either what is right or what is evil in God’s eyes.