Against Idle Speculation

expertSometimes, bible commentators can wander off into idle speculation. Because they’re well-educated, we often give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they’ve studied the text longer than we have, so we shouldn’t dismiss what they have to say.

Yeah, but . . .

We should still use our common sense. I have a good example. In the Book of Revelation (a book which is not nearly so difficult as we make it out to be), we read this harsh message from Jesus to the Christian congregation in the city of Laodicea:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth (Revelation 3:15-16).

There are two common interpretations:

  1. Jesus is criticizing them for their apathy. They aren’t “on fire” for God (i.e. “hot”). They aren’t outright disobedient, either (i.e. “cold”). Their collective attitude is . . . meh. They’re apathetic, indifferent slugs who sit on their couches, too lazy to be obedient or blatantly disobedient. Or . . .
  2. The cold and hot water are both good, and Jesus is unhappy that they aren’t either of them, or both. Instead, they’re “neither cold nor hot,” and thus disgusting. This interpretation is based on the fact that the city of Laodicea drew its hot water supply from the nearby city of Hierapolis, and its cold water from Colossae.[1] It assumes John had this in mind, and was drawing a parallel.

There are several problems with the second interpretation, but I’ll focus on one – it is based entirely on assumptions which are not verifiable. It sounds like a learned, scholarly answer, doesn’t? It’s based on “background knowledge” of the contemporary situation. It sounds good. Is it? I don’t think so. This isn’t the way people write or talk in the real world.

The curious case of the Madagascar scholar

I’ll prove to you how backward this kind of interpretative method can be.[2] Pretend that, today, I write this sentence on a piece of paper:

“Fed up with my son’s filthy room, I have decided to cleanse it of all Legos, NERF bullets and cars until they learn the error of their ways! They may cry and complain, but I shall let the chips fall where they may!”

Six hundred years go by. The United States is long gone. The most powerful nation in the world is the country of Madagascar. A team of archaeologists, working in what used to be known as the Pacific Northwest, unearth the ruins of a beautiful home and, inside, they find that piece of paper, miraculously preserved.

Excited beyond words at this critical find, the archaeologists scan this precious find and send it electronically back home, to the most learned and scholarly English-language expert in the world. You see, English has been a dead language since the early part of the 21st century, when America’s impetuous and maniacal president triggered a nuclear war that destroyed his country and the whole of Western civilization. This means my paper is an important find, and our English-language expert is eager to get to it.

After laboring for two years, he releases a synopsis of his findings:

As is well-known, early 21st century America was obsessed with food. Available data suggests many Americans were overweight or obese by this period of time. It is unlikely, therefore, that the author chose the words “fed up” by accident. This was possibly an unconscious reference to the unhealthy American culture, which he appropriated in an odd way to refer to his feelings for his son’s room.

Fragments from several religious volumes (Christian in nature) were found in the same house as this note, which have striking significance for his use of the adjective “filthy” to refer to his son’s room. The word can simply mean “dirty,” but the religious bent of the author suggests a deeper meaning. As is well known, the Christian religion has a long tradition of referring to unclean or morally impure things as “filthy.” This indicates the author’s problem with the room was not so much “untidiness,” as “moral unsuitability.” What this moral defect was, we cannot say. Perhaps the son was failing in some dire Christian duty, in which case the adjective “filthy” is more about moral failure than a simple “dirty room.” Note also the use of the world “cleanse,” which is also pregnant with Christian religious implications. Likewise, the phrase “error of his ways” also carries religious overtones, and may be a free paraphrase from a religious text.

Hopefully, you can see how stupid this kind of reasoning is. This is all idiotic. You might have even laughed a time or two. But, how often have you read bible commentary writers doing the very same thing? As the poet Robert Plant said, “it really makes me wonder . . .”

But, our Madagascar scholar isn’t done yet. Here is the crux of it:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this find is the phrase “I shall let the chips fall where they may.” Extensive archaeological monographs have shown this region, now a vast nuclear-scarred wasteland, used to be known as the “Pacific Northwest,” and was renowned for lush vegetation and large amounts of trees.

No doubt, the author had this in mind as he penned these words. Perhaps, from his home, he looked out at the vast forest surrounding his abode, and penned these words as he watched lumberjacks cutting down trees. Immersed as he was in this kind of environment, it is folly to assume he was not influenced by it.

We conclude the author deliberately used this idiom as a result of his context. In this analogy, the son is the lumberjack, and the “chips” which fall are the result of the son’s actions. These should be morally suitable “chips,” but they are not. So, the father (our author) has decided to let the “chips fall where they may,” and let the son suffer the consequences of his own action.

It is evident that background knowledge of a culture provides critical context for interpretation, none more so than in this case.

Back to reality

The example is over. What do you think about our scholar’s learned and amazing comments about the “chips?” What do you think about his assumption that I was influenced by my context when I wrote, “I shall let the chips fall where they may?”

Our Madagascar scholar might suspect this, but he’ll never actually know. But he’s banking on it, isn’t he? When you look at everything he wrote (above), is any of it actually true?

Nope. None of it. Think about that when you read a bible commentary that veers off into speculation, or listen to a preacher who engages in flights of fancy.

So, what was Jesus referring to in Revelation 3:15-16? You figure it out! But, remember this – those who prefer the second interpretation might be doing the very same thing our Madagascar scholar did . . .


[1] For a representative example of this interpretation, see Leon Morris, Revelation, in TNTC, vol. 20, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 84.

[2] I was inspired to make this example by a similar one from Moises Silva, God, Language and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 11-14