What is the most offensive verse in the Bible today?
Ask that question of people in 21st-century North America, and you’re likely to think about Bible verses that insist upon the exclusivist nature of Jesus’s teaching, or warn about hellfire and judgment, or forbid sexual behavior that society celebrates. Verses like these go against the grain of contemporary “common sense,” because they oppose pluralism, universalism, and the sexual revolution.
But I’m convinced that there’s one Bible verse that, when rightly understood, proves most offensive to people whose sensibilities have been shaped by Western notions of inclusivity and freedom. All the controversies mentioned above can be traced back to a simple command and affirmation found in one of the Bible’s most popular songs: Psalm 100, the one that starts by urging us to “make a joyful noise unto the LORD.” Two verses later, we read:
Acknowledge that the LORD is God. He made us, and we are his—his people, the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:3, CSB)
In some Hebrew manuscripts, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, the line that says “we are his” reads “and not we ourselves.” Whichever reading you go with, the meaning is clear: God is the One who made us. We did not make ourselves. We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to him.
In the original context, it’s evident that the psalmist wants the people of God to acknowledge the Lord as their God. His words remind them that they are his special people. But, in line with the rest of the Old Testament, this command presupposes the truth that Yahweh is the God—a universal Deity, not a localized god. The command is to acknowledge their Lord as the true God of the whole universe. The corresponding truth—that the Lord is the One who made us, and that we have not made ourselves, nor do we belong to ourselves—applies to the rest of the world as well.
Creator and the Creature
Why is Psalm 100:3 offensive to the modern mind?
Because it takes an axe to the root of one of our society’s tallest and most twisted trees: the notion that we alone are responsible for making or remaking ourselves, and that we must make our own meaning and decide upon our own “truth.”
Psalm 100:3 exalts a sovereign Creator who is the Lord of all. We are called to acknowledge him as Lord—the One who made us and the One to whom we belong. He defines us, not vice versa. He is ultimate, not us. He is the Creator; we are the creatures. He is self-sufficient; we are dependent. He is the source of all life; we derive our breath from him.
Receivers or Rebels
Cultural forces conspire to fool us into thinking that we create our own meaning in life—that we determine our value and destiny. For this reason, we resist the notion that there is Someone above us to whom we are accountable. We hate the idea that our freedom is in any way restricted by our limits as creatures, or by moral constraints. People like to think of truth as something they define and determine, not something apart from us that must be discovered.
If you look at the other verses I mentioned above—which to the modern ear sound exclusive, intolerant, or restrictive—and ask why they cause offense, you can trace their logic back to the existence of a God who is the Creator and Definer of all things. Psalm 100:3 lays out the larger truth that encompasses many of the smaller truths that offend our sensibilities. God is God, and we are not. We either acknowledge him and receive his truth, or we ignore him and reject his truth. Receivers or rebels: that is the choice before us. There is no middle ground.
Augustine: “I am not God, but God made me.”
In Confessions, Augustine seeks to discover what it is that he loves, and he imagines asking questions of the earth, the seas, and the creatures on land. “We aren’t your God: search above us,” they answered. So he turns to the winds and the atmosphere, and then to the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars, only to hear, “We’re not the God you’re looking for, either.”
But then I turned myself toward myself and asked myself, “Who are you?” and I answered, “A human being.” Here at my service were my body and my soul, the one of which is outward, the other inward. . . .
Augustine looks inside himself and realizes that the answer is the same as what all creation is shouting:
. . . “We are not God,” and “God made us.” The inside person has found this out through the help of the outside person. . . . I asked the whole huge universe about my God, and it answered me, “I am not God, but God made me.”
Freedom in Truth
Psalm 100:3. It is he who has made us, and not we ourselves. To him we belong. All the other verses in the Bible that rankle readers today can trace their origin back to the command that startles us in this psalm: Acknowledge that the Lord is God.
The good news in acknowledging the Godness of God is that we are then able to bring our lives in line with reality. Here we find joy as the “sheep of his pasture.” Here we find a truer and richer freedom in finding purpose and significance within the constraints of his good creation. And Bible verses that once caused offense in the heart of a rebel now bring joy to the recipient of grace.
Get these articles delivered to your inbox.