When the Chapters Obscure the Meaning

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.

So opens one of the most loved and well-known passages of Old Testament prophecy, as Isaiah foretells the birth of the one whose name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The messianic prophecy fills the first half of Isaiah 9, but then the reader suddenly finds himself in the middle of a harsh denunciation of the proud and unrepentant Israelites, warning of coming punishment in the form of Assyrian invasion. And then the chapter is over.

Flip over to the next chapter, and we find another, similar denunciation of Israel, once again prophesying Assyrian attack. Then the chapter turns into a denunciation of Assyria herself, warning this “axe” of God’s judgment not to think herself above “him who hews with it.” And with that, Isaiah 10 is complete as well.

If one is reading Isaiah chapter by chapter, it’s hard in this section to avoid a sense of fragmentary thoughts strung haphazardly together. Yet, if we were to simply erase the chapter division, suddenly Isaiah 9-10 reveals a fairly straightforward structure. There is the beautiful prophecy of the future Messiah, then a shift back to the present with a warning of judgment against arrogant Israel, which then flows naturally into a warning for Assyria as well.

It is only the chapter break in the middle of the prophecy against Israel which makes the outline harder to perceive, suggesting to the reader that its first portion belongs with the preceding messianic prophecy while its second part ought to be grouped with the prophecy against Assyria. Wipe the artificial split away, and a single prophecy against Israel naturally emerges in four related sections which each end with the warning that “his [Yahweh’s] hand is stretched out still.” The identical endings make the structure obvious unless we are misled by the even more obvious 10 planted midway through the prophecy.

As we read passages like this, it is important to remember that while the content of the Bible from the first word of Genesis to the last period in Revelation was inspired by God, our verse and chapter divisions were added to the Bible less than a thousand years ago as a convenience for readers. And they are very convenient—but not always very helpful in grasping the natural flow of the text. (The one exception is the Psalms, where each chapter simply encapsulates a particular psalm.)

Think of any book you’ve enjoyed. Now imagine that book divided into roughly page-length segments. Some parts might split up very naturally, but in other places the need to subdivide into fairly consistent sections would trample on whatever organization the author intended. And even if the added divisions didn’t confuse the natural literary structure, they would still create a more fragmentary reading experience.

Separating the Bible into chapters has a similar effect. The divisions can distract from the natural organization of the text, or even actively work against it. For example, Luke 3 begins with a description of John the Baptist’s ministry. Verses 21-22 describe Jesus’ baptism by John and then, seemingly from nowhere, Luke inserts a genealogy from Jesus back to Adam. Then the chapter ends. If we see the text through the grid of chapter divisions, we again find ourselves with that sense of fragmentary pieces haphazardly strung together. We then embark on Luke 4, with its story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, as a fresh and unrelated episode.

Yet, in fact, Luke’s genealogy forms an essential preface to the temptation in the wilderness. As Luke traces Jesus’ human heritage back to Adam, we are reminded of another time when Satan tempted man, and when the first man failed and fell. Against the backdrop of Eden, the story of Jesus’ disarming of Satan’s temptations stands as more than an illustration of righteousness; it becomes an inaugural victory of a new Man over sin personified, holding out glorious promise of additional and greater victory to come. But that beauty only appears against the backdrop of the genealogy which the chapter division severs from the story which follows. Of course, one can read across chapters, but that black 4 creates at least a small barrier to a deeper understanding and appreciation of what Luke is trying to communicate.

At the other end of the New Testament, the book of Revelation is especially vulnerable to chapter-induced misunderstanding, as the artificial divisions add obscurity to passages the meanings of which are already less than obvious. I will never forget the delighted and unexpected clarity I felt reading a commentary on Revelation which totally ignored chapter divisions to draw out the book’s natural structure as eight overlapping visions, each beginning with an introductory phrase like, “After this I looked, and behold…” (Rev 4:1, beginning the second vision), or “Then I saw…” (Rev 8:2, beginning the third). And if you just noticed from those references that John’s second vision concludes in the first verse of Revelation 8, to be followed confusingly by the beginning of his third vision in the chapter’s second verse, well, that’s exactly the point.

Of course, we ought not overstate the problem. Even at their most unhelpful, in the relatively rare instances when a chapter division actively obscures a section’s natural structure, it is still quite possible to work our way to a good grasp of the passage. However, ‘only mildly unhelpful’ is still unhelpful; as Bible readers, we need to realize that chapter divisions are not inspired and may sometimes hinder our understanding. With that in mind, there are several good ways to overcome the potential hindrance.

One option is to buy one of the increasingly popular Reader’s Bibles in which chapter and verse markers have been completed removed, creating a more natural reading experience in which the true structure of the text is more apparent.

If you prefer to keep your own, familiar Bible, an exercise which I have found helpful is to intentionally ignore chapter divisions when reading. Pay close attention what is being said and look for the narrative flow and natural divisions, trying as much as possible not to ‘see’ the surrounding chapter and verse notations.

Of course, literary structure isn’t always obvious, so a guide in all this can be very helpful. One great benefit of expository preaching is its ability to illuminate the meaning, themes, and structure of a book of the Bible as the pastor preaches through it. In your own private study, a well-written commentary can perform a similarly invaluable function. (Personally, I am a fan of the “The Bible Speaks Today” series. They are thoughtful and informative commentaries, but less dry and more devotional than most.)

In the end, the helpfulness or unhelpfulness of the Bible’s chapter divisions may not be the most pressing matter facing the modern church, but it is still worth bearing in mind as we read our Bibles. We should all desire to hear the Word of God more clearly, and sometimes that means looking past the man-made grid of chapters to better see the truth contained in the words they organize.

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