It’s painful to be misquoted. I remember how I felt when someone used the Internet to accuse me of saying that Matthew was wrong in applying Hosea 11:1 to Jesus (Matthew 2:15). I had not said Matthew was wrong, but wrote an article to show that Jesus gives fullness of meaning to events and principles as well as to clear statements of prediction.*
My feelings and reputation, however, are of small significance when compared to how God must feel when we misquote Him (Jeremiah 23:25-32).
One person who understood the implications of adding or subtracting from the words of God is a man named Agur. I think he’s one of my favorite wise men because he thinks with an enviable sense of balance, sees the signature of God in nature, and likes to teach with riddles (Proverbs 30).
Admittedly, Agur doesn’t make a strong first impression. The first words we hear from him are, “Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man” (Proverbs 30:2). But Agur quickly shows us why he would talk about himself like that. He has a low opinion of his own wisdom because he has such a high view of God (v.3). He is overwhelmed with how little he understands in the presence of the One who has created everything (v.4).
Humbled in the presence of his Creator, Agur sees the danger of misrepresenting such a God. Warning his readers to avoid the ultimate misquote, he says, “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (vv.5-6).
Could we be adding to the words of God without realizing it? As followers of Christ, many of us believe it is important to talk about what God has said, what He is doing in our lives, and what He wants us to do. In the process, however, we can unintentionally harm His reputation by casually or carelessly talking as though there is not a distinction between His written Word and our impression of what He wants us to do.
Think about the implications of saying, “God said to me” or “God led me to say.” If outsiders overhear us, will they think we are hearing voices? What about those who share our faith? How many are going to have the courage to protect the reputation of God by challenging or testing our “God spoke to my heart” language?
Agur is not alone in seeing the danger of misquoting God. He echoes Moses (Deuteronomy 4:2; 13:1-3) and anticipates the last warning of the New Testament (Revelation 22:18-19). All give strong warnings about the danger of adding to or subtracting from the revealed and written words of God.
How can we give God the consideration we would want for ourselves? One way to answer this question is to think about what we require of one another. We expect those who quote us to honor not only our words but also our intent. We also want anyone who uses our name to distinguish between what they think we would say, and what they have actually heard from us.
If we apply this same consideration to God, we won’t quote Him out of context. We’ll try to protect not only His words but also His intent. Just as importantly, we will carefully distinguish between what He has actually said, and what “we think” or “what we believe” He is saying or leading us to do.
Adding simple, honest disclaimers can help to protect God’s reputation and our integrity. In the process, we will give others permission to test and judge for themselves whether what we are attributing to God is consistent with what the God of the Bible has actually said (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).
What’s in an accurate quote of God? Agur says, “Every word of God is pure” (Proverbs 30:5). The term he uses for “pure” has behind it the picture of metal refined by fire.
God’s words are more than flawlessly true in fact. They are also pure in intent. Whatever God says comes from a heart that is like a consuming fire to all that is deceitful and worthless. His knowledge is perfect. His intent is honorable. His motives are above reproach. This means that to quote God accurately we need to honor the difference between His intent and our self-serving interests.
How can we resist the tendency to quote God in a self-serving way? Let’s take what God has said about money as an example. We can accurately say that the Bible encourages us to give to the needs of others out of our own earnings (Acts 20:35; Ephesians 4:28). But we would corrupt the purity of those words by telling people that God wants them to give money to others, or to Him, by sending it to our address.
I’m indebted to the teacher who helps his students distinguish between possible, probable, and necessary interpretations and implications of the Bible. So let’s do that with the Agur quote we’re looking at. When the wise man says, “Every word of God is pure . . . . Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6), it seems to me that:
A possible implication is that we should attach authority to no more and no less than what God has actually said.
A probable implication is that when we quote God we should always make it clear where the actual words of Scripture end and where our words of explanation begin.
A necessary implication is that we not add our own words to what God has said so as to actually change the meaning and purpose of what God has declared.
If such thoughtfulness seems like too much trouble, it’s time to remember how painful it is to be misquoted. And if Agur is right, then casually talking about “what God spoke to my heart” may also be a time to think about having to answer to a God who is even more jealous for His own Name, reputation, and credibility than we are for our own.
Father in heaven, please help us to remember the wisdom and warning of Agur. We want to protect the faith of all who need to see the difference between Your words and ours. —Mart De Haan
*Read Mart’s article “Missing Prophecies” online.