by Lee Anderson, Jr. —
Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times,1 Chronicles 12:32*
with knowledge of what Israel should do . . .
In accurately interpreting the word of God, careful attention to the immediate context is often the most important consideration.
In the middle of 1 Chronicles 12 is an interesting remark about the men from the tribe of Issachar, that they “understood the times” and, accordingly, possessed “knowledge of what Israel should do.” If you have ever heard this verse addressed in a Sunday school class, Bible study, or devotional gathering, then you have almost certainly encountered (as have I) the assumption that this verse is a call for contemporary Christians to educate themselves regarding today’s culture, to better “understand the times” as it were, and so be better equipped to engage the people of our generation with the truth of the Gospel.**
This, in many respects, is an admirable outlook. And certainly, in carrying on the work of ministry, it is beneficial to be attuned to today’s culture. Evangelists and apologists especially, by observing current cultural trends, can gain a much better understanding of how to engage nonbelievers with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Likewise, pastors and church leaders, by staying aware of major cultural influences, can minister more effectively to the believers under their care, showing how the Bible is relevant to present-day concerns.
Notably, this is a biblical concept. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul exhibits an astute knowledge of the (then) present-day culture in Corinth in dealing with the delicate question of whether it was permissible for believers to eat meat from animals that had been offered to false deities in pagan temples. His knowledge of the culture helped Christians resolve a pressing issue in the church.
But, in returning to 1 Chronicles 12:32, we must ask ourselves, is this really what this verse is talking about? There are two reasons that strongly suggest it is not.
The first reason is that this passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. Even though there is an implicit commendation of the men from Issachar for their knowledge of the times, there is no express instruction given in the text for their fellow Israelites then—or for Christians now—to learn to imitate them.
The second and much more significant reason concerns the immediate literary context. First Chronicles 12 begins with a list of King David’s “mighty men” (note verse 1). Beginning in verse 23, the text presents a record of the numbers and capabilities of David’s military units from the tribes of Israel. The passage calls attention to such things as their weaponry and organization. In saying that the soldiers from the tribe of Issachar “understood the times,” the verse most likely indicates that they possessed a keen knowledge related to the subject at hand—that is, of current military strategy. Given the contextual clues, we may infer from this verse that these men served as David’s tacticians. Consequently, it appears that this verse bears no real connection to the application commonly ascribed to it. Yes, it is a prudent thing to seek to understand the times in which we live so as to engage with our culture in a way that glorifies God (note 1 Corinthians 10:31), but that is simply not what this passage teaches.
Scripture commends the careful and accurate handling of God’s “word of truth” (see 2 Timothy 2:15). This means that, in reading Scripture, we must seek to understand and teach its true sense—the meaning that its author intended—rather than looking to fit the message of a given verse with our desired application. We should study Scripture diligently, always paying close attention to the surrounding context, so we can understand what God’s word really means. And, even if the inferred application appeals to us, interpretations that clash with the context are best relegated to the wastebasket of Sunday School Myths.
*All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, is from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
**Significantly, this was a perspective advocated aggressively by the ministry organization for which I used to work. See, for example, here, here, here, here, and here.