When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River, a heavenly voice identifies him as the Father’s beloved son. Paradoxically, he is then led (or, as the gospel of Mark has it, driven or banished) into the desert to be tested by the devil.
While it may still be an open question whether the devil wears Prada, it is an established fact in the gospels’ presentation that the accuser quotes Scripture. His hermeneutic, that is to say his interpretive tactic, is sophisticated but very bad.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’’ (Matthew 4:5–7 NRSV)
The devil cites the ninety-first psalm. The poem ranks high among the favorites of Bible readers and lies open, almost as a protective amulet, by the besides of many sleepers around the world. They treasure its promise that YHWH’s hidden forces, his uncounted angels, are more than sufficient protection for his hard-pressed child who finds himself exposed to lethal invisibilities over which he holds no control.
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. (Psalms 91:3–10 NRSV)
The satanic way with Scripture is to quote text without context. This simple maneuver ably converts the word of God into the voice of hell.
The devil comes quickly—as contextless citation allows one efficiently to do—to his point. He engages Jesus in a conversation that leaves the best film directors flailing just a bit. The psalm from which he quotes reads in this place as follows:
For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. (Psalms 91:11–13 NRSV)
It seems a note custom-made for the hungry abandonment of the beloved son in a desert not of his choosing.
Yet Jesus supplies a context that is latent in the ninety-first psalm itself, but visible and explicit in the Torah text that he quotes:
Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. (Deuteronomy 6:16 NRSV)
Jesus is, after all, the beloved son. The devil’s favorite psalm begins and ends with words directed to the faithful and besieged sufferer, who has nowhere to place his trust but in YHWH himself. Their plight is the same one. The devil conveniently overlooks this contextual bedrock, as it suits his purpose to do.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ (Psalms 91:1–2 NRSV)
Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation. (Psalms 91:14–16 NRSV)
On the devil’s lips, Scripture thus becomes the voice of hell. The threatened believer is turned by demand against his divine Protector. Trust becomes insolent challenge. Scripture is ostensibly honored but in reality debased.
We who are quick with a Bible, craving simplicity, learn too well hell’s pragmatic and horrible hermeneutic.
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