Can One Passage Have Multiple Applications?


When an interpreter of Scripture considers how best to apply a passage, what are the limits? At one end, valid applications are limited by the textual meaning found through historical-grammatical exegesis.[1] Applications that go beyond the textual meaning of a passage violate basic hermeneutical principles. At the other end, faithful application properly reads the cultural context to which it applies a passage.[2] But can one passage have multiple, even different, applications for different historical-cultural contexts?[3]

Instead of appealing to theory in order to answer this question, I intend to consider how an important passage gets interpreted and applied to the same city at two different points in Israel’s history. Exodus 34:6-7 provides the base passage for two applications concerning Nineveh—Jonah 4:2 and Nahum 1:3.[4] Before considering the applications of Exodus 34:6-7 in these other passages, we need to first look at Exodus 34:6-7 in its original context. This provides the meaning that the other two passages apply in their unique historical-cultural contexts.


Exodus 34:6-7

Unquestionably, this is one of the most significant passages in the Old Testament. Echoes and allusions related to this passage are found throughout the Old Testament.[5] God had entered a covenant with the nation of Israel (Exodus 19­­–24). The second general stipulation of this covenant forbade making idols (Exodus 20:4-6). Yet, Israel under the encouragement of Moses’s brother Aaron made and worshipped an idol (Exodus 32). Moses interceded for Israel’s preservation and the Lord promised to renew the covenant. At this critical point of renewal, God revealed his character. The passage reads,

“Then the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in covenantal loyalty and faithfulness, keeping covenantal loyalty for thousands, bearing iniquity, transgression, and sin, but he will not withhold punishment, visiting the sin of parents upon children and grandchildren to the third and fourth.”[6]

Read in context, the referent of God’s covenantal loyalty and faithfulness is Israel. Twice he declared his covenantal name (Exodus 3:14-15) and used language typical of covenant. Furthermore, the Lord proclaimed his character in the immediate context of covenant renewal. Based on the original context, one would certainly assume that Israelites could faithfully apply this passage to their history and covenantal relationship with the Lord. However, both Nahum 1:3 and Jonah 4:2 apply this passage to Nineveh.


Nahum 1:3a

Nahum 1:3a reads, “Yahweh, slow to anger and great in power, but he will not withhold punishment.” With the exception of the phrase “and great in power,” this quotes directly from Exodus 34:6-7. In context, this passage comes in an oracle against Nineveh (Nahum 1:1). God’s vengeance and wrath against his enemies are the content of the immediately preceding verse. The entire oracle focuses on the Lord’s judgment. The only exception is Nahum 1:7, which promises salvation for those who seek refuge in the Lord for security from God’s wrath.

Based on Exodus 34:6-7, Nahum applied three aspects to his current situation. First, the God who would bring judgment is Yahweh, the covenantal God of Israel. Only he could rightfully bring judgment against Nineveh. Even though the original context of God’s self-disclosure was his covenant and relationship with Israel, Nahum rightly perceived that this aspect of his character applied beyond Israel. As the Creator God, he alone has authority to judge all peoples, cities, and nations. Second, Nahum quoted that God is slow to anger. He perceived that this characteristic likewise transcends God’s special relationship with Israel. Third, Nahum quoted that the Lord would not withhold punishment against evildoers.

It’s important to note what Nahum quoted and didn’t quote from Exodus 34:6-7. The three aspects of God’s character that Nahum highlighted are easily applicable beyond the Lord’s covenantal relationship with Israel. Since God had revealed that he stands as judge over non-Israelite nations (Exodus 12:12; 1 Samuel 2:10), Nahum applied this statement about God’s character beyond its original application to Israel. At the same time, he avoided applying the more specific covenantal terms from Exodus 34:6-7 to his particular historical-cultural context.[7]

The application in Nahum emphasized that God had allowed Nineveh’s sin to increase, because he is “slow to anger.” However, “he will not withhold punishment” forever. God would eventually come in his full wrath against the wickedness of Nineveh. This prophecy came to fulfillment in 612 BC, when Nabopolassar brought the city to its end.


Jonah 4:2

Jonah 4 arose in a radically different historical-cultural context. God had once again declared judgment against Nineveh (Jonah 3:4). In response, Nineveh had mourned and sought for God to relent through fasting and mourning (Jonah 3:5-9). The narrator informed the reader that God relented in response to this repentance (Jonah 3:10). Jonah became furious (Jonah 4:1) and he declared to the Lord that the purpose he fled from him at the beginning of the book was because “I knew that you are a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in covenantal loyalty, relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2d).

Whereas Nahum appealed to God’s slowness to anger as an explanation for why God had not yet judged Nineveh, Jonah appealed to the same passage as an explanation for why God did not bring the immediate judgment he had warned. Instead of appealing to God’s reluctance to withhold judgment, as Nahum did, Jonah applied different divine characteristics to his situation. Jonah first emphasized God’s mercy and graciousness. God’s graciousness arises from his nature (Exodus 22:27). The same could be said of his mercy (Deuteronomy 4:31). Examples such as Noah (Genesis 6:8) show that God’s grace has not come only within a covenantal relationship, since God’s declaration of grace to Noah preceded his promise to establish a covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18). Therefore, since Jonah desired that God bring judgment upon Nineveh, based on God’s revelation of his character as gracious and merciful, he feared that he might show grace and mercy instead.

But Jonah also applied explicit covenantal language to his historical-cultural context. He quoted the phrase “abounding in covenantal loyalty.” In his quotation, Jonah seemed to have the greater context of Exodus 34 and the covenant in mind.[8] The nature of the covenant had been stated in Exodus 19:4-6 (ESV):

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

The original purpose of God’s covenant with Israel was for them to become a priestly kingdom, mediating God’s restoration to all nations.[9] Jonah’s quotation rightly implied that as a representative of Israel, God might bring restoration. This would uphold the missional intention of the covenant (Exodus 19:6). If a wicked people, like Nineveh, repented and turned to the Lord in response to a divine message, then an Israelites should expect God to bring restoration through a representative of his priestly kingdom. This was Jonah’s expectation that led to his response in Jonah 1:3. This explains Jonah’s anger at the onset of Jonah 4. This application differs from Nahum 1:3 but applies to a different historical-cultural context.


One Meaning, Two Contexts, and Two Applications

Nahum 1:3 and Jonah 4:2 show that one passage can have two valid applications when applied to vastly different historical-cultural contexts. In response to the persistent wickedness of the Ninevites, Nahum could rightly apply Exodus 34:6-7 to explain why God has not yet brought judgment—he is “slow to anger”—but also why Israel should still expect God to bring judgment—“he will not withhold judgment.” In response to a repentant Nineveh, Jonah could rightly apply Exodus 34:6-7 to explain why God had not brought immediate judgment—he is “slow to anger,” and “gracious and merciful.” Furthermore, he abounds in “covenantal loyalty,” so Jonah rightly expected that he will relent from disaster since the city repented as a response to a divine message from his priestly kingdom.

These two biblical examples give us some insights for how we might faithfully apply Scripture in our day. First, these examples show the importance of understanding the original context. The two applications uphold the textual intention of the original passage. Second, these examples show that the historical-cultural context of application matters. In Nahum, Nineveh had not repented. They persisted in their wickedness. This led Nahum to apply certain aspects of God’s character revealed in Exodus 34:6-7 but not apply other aspects. In Jonah, Nineveh had repented. This led him to apply other divine characteristics revealed in Exodus 34:6-7. The meaning of Exodus 34:6-7 did not change, but the historical-cultural context for the two applications differed dramatically.

These examples encourage modern preachers and teachers of God’s word to first study the textual meaning of a passage. What do these words mean considering historical-grammatical exegesis? Once we can come to a proper understanding of the textual meaning of a passage, these passages imply that we should study our own historical-cultural context. The two examples presented above show that the same passage could apply differently in different historical-cultural contexts. In our day, this implies that one church may not apply a passage in the exact same way as another church. Both churches must remain faithful to the textual intention of the passage because meaning doesn’t change, but they can diverge in their specific applications of that meaning. Thus, faithful application of biblical meaning requires both deep exegesis of Scripture and deep exegesis of one’s specific historical-cultural context.

[1] See, for instance, J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Fourth Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 241-45.

[2] See Timothy J. Keller, “Preaching Christ to Culture,” ch. 4 in Preaching (Penguin: New York, NY), 2016.

[3] I’m not asking if one passage can have multiple meanings. Meaning is restricted to the textual intention. The question at hand is can one passage’s meaning be applied in different ways at different times.

[4] Nineveh probably serves as a metonymy for Assyria in Nahum, but since both Nahum and Jonah specify Nineveh, this article will use Nineveh.

[5] See, for instance, the helpful chart of these echoes and allusions by Gary Schnittjer, Old Testament Use of the Old Testament: A Book by Book Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021), 877.

[6] Unless specified, all translations belong to the author. Words in bold are found in all three passages. Words in italics are found in Ex 34 and Nah 1. Words underlined are found in Ex 34 and Jonah 4.

[7] Terms with high covenantal resonance in Ex 34:6-7 are his covenantal name—יְהוָה, חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת, as well as sin terminology related to covenantal violation.

[8] Schnittjer, OT Use of the OT, 406.

[9] Ross Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known: The Missionary Heart of the Book of Exodus, New Studies in Biblical Theology 28 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 92.