Chances are you’ve heard the oft-repeated last lines of Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Maybe you’ve repeated those words as a life motto or a boost to morale in the midst of a pivotal life change. Perhaps you’ve even internalized them as a New Year’s resolution of sorts, a reminder to live off-the-beaten path. But what if I told you that you probably have no idea what this poem is actually about?
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
Readers of the western world, we need to talk. Don’t worry, it’s not about your horrible grammar. (Though, it’d be great if you could remember that apostrophes are not used to make things plural.) Instead, we’re going to be chatting about context and how important it is to not succumb to the intellectual laziness of our modern culture, particularly when it comes to biblical interpretation.
But first, back to Frost. If one would just read the entirety of his poem, he or she would easily see that the two paths are virtually identical (see bold lines). The narrator tells us that he knows he will likely not return to travel the path he does not choose and so seeks something by which to tell them apart. Yet, in the end, he chooses at random from two equally traveled paths.
As for those last lines, he knows in the present moment that both roads are essentially the same yet believes that, “ages and ages hence,” he will deceive himself with the notion that one was “less traveled by”. It’s probable, by the remark about him “telling this with a sigh,” that he will look back on his choice with regret, lining up with the poem’s title, “The Road Not Taken.”
Knowing a bit about the poem’s background (i.e., Frost’s frequent walks with friend Edward Thomas) will help in catching the author’s use of irony, but it’s not necessary in understanding the message. It’s all there in black and white.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
What does all this have to do with the Bible? To understand the Bible, one needs to understand the importance of context. We’ve become so lazy in our approach to literature that we don’t care about the intended audience, the nature of the genre, the historical background, or frankly, even what the text is explicitly stating. The modern reader has only enough intellectual stamina for bumper stickers, tweets, and bathroom stall graffiti. As it stands, we live in a mean, meme world.
Given our vapid self-absorption, enabled by this Internet Age, it’s all too easy to prooftext passages, pulling verses out of their context, or inserting our own preconceived notions into the text (i.e., eisegesis). This is unfortunate when it comes to classic literature, like Frost’s poem, but it can be deadly when it comes to theology. Here are a couple commonly abused verses:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Though widely used as an encouragement to present-day Christians, this blessing is intended for Jewish exiles living in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. If you don’t think it’s a big deal to slap it on graduation cards, consider how prosperity preachers have nefariously stripped this passage from its context to teach that God wants you to have your “best life now.” Yes, God has plans for us, and Christians do have hope and a future in the new heaven and new earth, but that’s not the message of this passage. We are not promised a life of temporal prosperity free from suffering.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. (Matthew 7:1)
This one is so commonly misused, particularly by non-believers and cultural “Christians”, it’s worthy of an eye-roll. The rebel reveling in his or her sin thinks this is a fun “gotcha” passage precisely because he or she has no idea what the verse really means (and, obviously, because the sinner loves his sin and will make any excuse for it). The idea is not that Christians cannot or should not make judgments as to what constitutes sin based on scriptural truth (see Matthew 7:6 and 7:16, both of which teach discernment between good and evil). Instead, Jesus prohibits one type of judgment, namely that which is hypocritical (“first take the log out of your own eye”) and motivated by a sanctimonious heart. Is someone truthfully going to argue that Jesus never pointed out anyone’s sin? Or did you forget that He called the Pharisees and teachers of the law a “brood of vipers”? The point is that we should subject ourselves to examination first before offering correction to others not that we should never offer correction.
How about Matthew 18:20’s ignored context of church discipline or the flagrant social justice manipulations of Galatians 3:28? The list could go on and on. I hope these illustrations have shown how yanking passages out of context can completely alter what the author is trying to convey.
So if you’re going to reject the truth of Scripture, you should probably know what it is really saying. As for Christians: if you’re going to strive for obedience to the revealed Word of God, then you need to have the highest possible view of Scripture, including a commitment to mindful reading and thorough exegesis. I challenge you to go back and read these passages in their context. Lay your preconceived notions aside, and grapple with what the text is teaching. As we go into 2020, let’s keep context in mind, striving to make it the ‘end of an error’.