. How Do You Apply a Passage When It Has No Commands?

How Do You Apply a Passage When It Has No Commands?

Exodus 20:15 is pretty practical: “Thou shalt not steal.” There are complexities, there are always complexities whenever fallible and finite people like us try to apply God’s norms to our situations. But for the most part, we Bible readers feel we know what to do with this command.

But what about the Bible passages that contain no clear commands? What are we supposed to do with them, or in response to them?

Blessing and Bible Study

When I first read Psalm 112:1 as a newly serious student of the Bible, I sat up in my chair.

Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments!

I wanted that. I wanted the blessing, and I wanted the delighting that led to it. I hungered and thirsted for righteousness. So I started a Bible study project. As a good undergraduate who passed freshman English on the first try, I knew how to mark verbs in the imperative mood. I decided to read through the Bible looking for every “commandment,” and to mark all those commandments by drawing a little box around the verse number nearest it. The evidence of this project survives:

commands in the Bible

But the evidence says I didn’t make it very far. My project petered out, and not because I ran out of will-power but because I ended up getting what I came for—just not in the way I expected. You see, something finally dawned on me: not all of the Bible’s “commands” are grammatical imperatives. And in some sense I could draw a box around every verse number in the Bible. Everything God says constitutes some kind of norm for readers of his word.

The “norms” the Bible offers for our thinking, our feeling, and our doing are presented in all kinds of creative and interesting ways beyond (and including) imperative sentences. And many of the actual imperatives of the Old Testament, particularly in the levitical codes, actually don’t apply to us New Testament Christians directly; Jesus said so (Mark 7:19; see Frank Thielman’s Paul and the Law for greater detail).

But if there are “commands” in Scripture which don’t appear in the imperative mood, how can we spot them? What are the “norms”—the implicit commands—contained in just the first few verses of the psalm I was reading, Psalm 112?

Couplet 1: Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments!

Implicit commands: 1) fear the Lord; 2) delight in his commandments; 3) seek blessing.

Couplet 2: His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed.

Implicit commands: 1) look forward with pleasure to and be motivated by the day when your children will be mighty in the land; 2) be upright; 3) seek blessing.

Couplet 3: Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever.

Implicit commands: 1) believe that wealth and riches generally characterize the upright; 2) trust that the righteousness of truly upright people is lasting.

It’s admittedly a little ridiculous to boil down an effusive poem from the Psalms into a list of commands. God inspired a poem and not a commandment list for a reason—for many reasons. But there are norms contained in Psalm 112. The question is not, perhaps, whether there are norms but how best to be shaped by them. I suggest that the best way to be shaped by the psalm’s implicit norms is probably not to make them explicit at all (at least not at first) but to just read the psalm thoughtfully, or even set it to music; just like the best way to be shaped by the stories of Abraham or Joseph is to start by soaking in the narratives. Skipping right to the “lessons” before taking in the art form is a mistake. Those norms are still there in the psalms and in Genesis, shaping you as you read and meditate.

Divine norms suffuse every story in Numbers, structure every prophetic diatribe against the nations in Isaiah, and fill all of Paul’s epistles. Six times in the New Testament, in fact, the Spirit inspired Paul to tell his readers to imitate him (2 Thess 3:7; 1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 2 Tim 1:13), and two times to praise his readers for doing so (1 Thess 1:6; 2 Tim 3:10; cf. 1 Thess 2:14). This means that Paul himself—or what we know of him from the New Testament—is one of the means by which God reveals norms for us. Paul wasn’t sinless, but we are supposed to look to his example, whether he’s issuing an imperative or not.

Take a random, fairly commonplace verse from the Pauline epistles:

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity (Phil 4:10).

There are no grammatical imperatives in these two sentences. They are, in the most basic sense, historical descriptions of the feelings of an ancient ex-Pharisee and some ancient ex-pagan Greeks. But do any norms for my own behavior or feeling appear here? Yes. This verse sets up Paul as an example: look at the kind of thing he rejoiced over. (When you get a meal from another Christian, do you rejoice more because of the chili or because you got to see God’s grace at work in him or her?) The verse also sets up the Philippians as examples; Certain Philippians showed emotional concern for Paul that sought to express itself in material, physical help, even though they were hindered from actually doing so. “We should be like that, too,” is a legitimate application of this passage (when taken in balance with the necessity of grace, of course).

The connection between a given biblical statement and your personal moral responsibility is not always crystal clear at the outset. And it is difficult to give a rigorous philosophical-theological accounting for the way in which a story or poem can be “authoritative” in the first place. And “example” isn’t the only tool God uses to reveal his norms.

Mobile Ed professor Dan Doriani, drawing deeply from the work of John Frame, suggests that “biblical texts instruct us seven ways: through rules, ideals, doctrines, redemptive acts in narratives, exemplary acts in narratives, biblical images, and songs and prayers” (Putting the Truth to Work, 82). I came to the Bible, launched by Psalm 112:1’s promise of blessing, looking for rules. But God has other ways of instructing, shaping, and commanding me. I won’t say it’s wrong to search for and mark biblical commands. I will say that if you want to be blessed, delighting in God’s commandments means finding all the norms in Scripture, however God chose to reveal them.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • This has never come to my mind to think about “all” of His commands. We often only think of the Ten Commandments. But all through the Bible God gives us direct and indirect commands. It is up to us believers, the followers of Christ, to read and understand what is expected of us and to know what the benefits or repercussions are. That is why He also commands us to take in the Word and keep it in out heart.

    Very good posting Mr. Ward. I greatly enjoyed reading this.

    • Thanks so much.

      I was just reading in John Frame’s excellent Doctrine of the Word of God,

      The authority of God’s word varies broadly according to the many functions I have listed. When God communicates information, we are obligated to believe it. When he tells us to do something, we are obligated to obey. When he tells us a parable, we are obligated to place ourselves in the narrative and meditate on the implications of that. When he expresses affection, we are obligated to appreciate and reciprocate. When he gives us a promise, we are obligated to trust. Let’s define the authority of language as its capacity to create an obligation in the hearer. So the speech of an absolute authority creates absolute obligation. Obligation is not the only content of language, as we have seen. But it is the result of the authority of language. (6)

  • The search for commands can be taken way to far. For instance, if we consider the parable of the prodigal son we can enumerate various commands. But to do so is to miss the entire point of the parable. Both sons rejected their father but the father unconditionally wanted them back into his house and his celebration. We are to realize that no matter how far we separate ourselves from God he wants us to be reconciled to him, something that is not possible through our obedience to his commands, only through his action. When we emphasize the commands we tend to diminish the point. It was not obedience to the commands that the father wanted. It was his children.

  • In a sense, this reminds me of Jesus’ chastisement of the Pharisees and Sadducees for only concentrating on the imperatives of the Law. God’s Word is not a set of commands to be mastered (though understanding them is certainly beneficial), rather it is His loving wisdom to us concerning life and a relationship with Him (mainly) and others. He is our good Father and wants the best for us, but at the same time Holy. This article really brings home the “living life abundantly” nuggets and wisdom that await a diligent seeker in the Word. I really appreciated it.

  • Wow! It never occurred to me that I could not learn from a passage without a law. I grieve for the person who feels that way.

    So much of what I learn from the Bible is not due to a command, that I would have trouble figuring out all the commands this person derives from an observation. I like not needing commands for everything.

    I like seeing the list of fruits of the spirit, and leaving them to be fruits. How might I grow such fruit. I know people who are so gracious and kind that nobody ever sees them thinking about how to do what they do, and I yearn to be that kind of person. The Bible shows me such people, and I yearn to be like them. I ask God in prayer, “How can I see through the natural human coverups and know what to do for a person in need?” That isn’t about a command; it is about my own insensitivity. I want the kind of eyes that do not need a command.

    I’m glad the Bible doesn’t list all its commands. It is hard enough to remember ten, and harder still to live up to them.

    • That’s not quite how it was… I knew I could learn from passages without specific laws. But even in the passages you mention, let me ask this: does the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:22–23 lay any obligations on me? Yes, these are fruit of the Spirit, but does that mean we Let Go and Let God? Or must we still “make every effort” to add virtue to our faith (1 Pet)?

      But you’re perfectly right in your last paragraph.

  • I always have said to people that if you want to grow in your life free of any law or command just read the bible. As a book as many call it, to me is the daily rule of life. Is very nice to know that many other peoples see in the Word of God the true meaning and message with in each and every passage in the Bible. Is the ONLY BOOK who can talk to you differently each time is lifted. Now if this is just a regular book why then is the only one that can really share with you the must hidden secret of your heart? Why each and every time you lift it, talk to you like, it know you better than your self? What Dr. Ward teach us here is more important that any other advisor, or counselor you may ever meet. Just on my part, Thank You for sharing your view and teachings. The Lord God bless you and guide you to share his beautiful word and grace.

Written by Mark Ward