Interpreting Scripture

A large part of the misunderstandings over the character of God issue come from the fact that some important principles of interpreting scripture are being neglected. In many cases (or quite possibly the vast majority), people are simply not aware of these potential problems.

There were careful Bible students who worked out principles of interpretation in the past. While those were the principles they determined, those could be a good place for us to start. From such lists we can at least become aware of principles that we may not have even thought of and decide if we should follow them or not.

One classic case of a carefully-thought-out list was the rules of William Miller, a 19th-century Baptist Minister. Here is what William Miller wrote about his method of Bible study:

“I determined to lay aside all my prepossessions, to thoroughly compare Scripture with Scripture, and to pursue its study in a regular and methodical manner.  I commenced with Genesis, and read verse by verse, proceeding no faster than the meaning of the several passages should be so unfolded as to leave me free from embarrassment respecting any mysticisms or contradictions.  Whenever I found anything obscure, my practice was to compare it with all collateral passages; and, by the help of Cruden [a concordance], I examined all the texts of Scripture in which were found any of the prominent words contained in any obscure portion.  Then, by letting every word have its proper bearing on the subject of the text, if my view of it harmonized with every collateral passage in the Bible, it ceased to be a difficulty.  In this way I pursued the study of the Bible, in my first perusal of it, for about two years, and was fully satisfied that it is its own interpreter.  I found that, by a comparison of Scripture with history, all the prophecies, as far as they have been fulfilled, had been fulfilled literally; that all the various figures, metaphors, parables, similitudes, etc., of the Bible, were either explained in their immediate connection, or the terms in which they were expressed were defined in other portions of the Word; and, when thus explained, are to be literally understood in accordance with such explanation.  I was thus satisfied that the Bible is a system of revealed truths.” (William Miller)

You can see William Miller’s Principles of Biblical Interpretation.

I would like to point out from Miller’s quote above that the Bible “is its own interpreter.” This is very important when it comes to “the various figures, metaphors, parables, similitudes, etc., of the Bible.” Many things in scripture cannot be literally understood because they involve these (and other) figures of speech mentioned by Miller. It seems that many people have become very slack in their use of language and understanding of its structure. I have often heard people say something “If the Bible says it, I believe it” or “I take scripture just as it reads.” That sounds good but can also be an excuse for laziness, for not taking the time to investigate and understand what scripture really means rather than just what it appears to be saying on the surface.

Let’s look at some of what scripture itself tells us:

“Search [don’t just surface read] the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39)

“Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.” (Matt 22:29)

“Knowing the scriptures” would involve more than knowing verses here and there but also knowing how they relate to each other; understanding the big picture. You know a forest not by spending most of your time looking at one or a few trees. You would find the extent, the boundaries of it, learn its topography, find its water sources, paths, learn of all the types of trees etc. That is what William Miller did.

The way scripture uses symbols in one passage that are explained elsewhere in scripture, there is no way a person could just read it through and understand it all.

“These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11)

We should search the scriptures to confirm [to see “whether those things were so”] new things we hear and even our own long-held beliefs.

“And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” (2 Tim 3:15-16)

Here is a verse that seems to suggest that we need to put verses (lines) together:

“For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:” (Isa 28:10)

This helps us to understand the Bible’s precepts – (def.) “a commandment or direction given as a rule of action or conduct.” (www.dictionary.com)

Having said all that, I fully recognize that each person is growing in understanding of scripture. It is a process but one that, once started and made a daily, high-priority habit, can be most rewarding.

The fact is that figures of speech can’t always be taken literally and it is beneficial to consider a few of these.

Metaphors

A metaphor is an image which suggests similarities between two different ideas, without implying that they are identical. Scripture uses many metaphors to illustrate its truths. Often the declaration is made very directly that one thing is (or represents another) such as:

“The Lord is my shepherd …” (Psa 23:1)

At other times, what is represented must be understood from the context:

“So now let me tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed; I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground.” (Isa 5:5)

There are two metaphors used in this verse: Israel is likened to a vineyard and its Divine protection to a hedge. The meaning of the vineyard is given very clearly a couple of verses later:

“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel …” (Isa 5:7)

A reader of the original Hebrew or a reader of the King James or other versions could figure out the meaning from the words used.

Similes

A simile is a literary device that makes a comparison between two things using the words “like” or “as.”

“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” (Isa 40:11)

Whereas the metaphor said “is my shepherd” the simile says “like a shepherd” but neither is literally true. They are figurative expressions to be understood as such but are used to convey important truths.

Parables

There are many other forms of language in scripture that cannot be taken literally. Parables are a very well-known literary device and Jesus used a great number of them, in fact:

“All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them:” (Matt 13:34)

That parables cannot always be readily understood even by those knowing the language is clear:

“Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.” (Matt 13:36)

A parable serves as an illustration, a story that is designed to teach a lesson beyond the literal meaning. A strictly-literal reading can miss the deeper and truer intent of the parable. Jesus often criticized the “Pharisees” for living by the letter of the law (the Hebrew Scriptures) but missing the deeper meaning – the spirit of the law. In the Sermon on the Mount, many times, Jesus showed the difference between the literal and true meaning of the law saying, “You have heard it said (literal) …, but I say (true or deeper meaning) …”

Idioms

Parables can be hard to understand; Jesus often had to explain them to His followers.  Metaphors and similes are not too bad for someone who knows the language and understands that there is such a thing as those figures of speech. Idioms are far harder to understand. Someone can know the words of the language and each word’s meaning but if they have not learned the meaning of a particular idiom it would be nearly impossible to grasp the meaning.

Idioms cannot be literally understood because the literal meaning of the individual words does not add up to the meaning of the idiomatic phrase. Unless a person, even one quite familiar with the words of the language, has previously learned the particular idiom they will not understand what is said. So it is even more important to be aware of Biblical idioms than similes and metaphors etc.

For example, if someone says “I’m stuck between a rock and hard place” do you start looking for a way to free them? What it means is “I’m in a difficult or bad situation with no good way of escaping it” but you couldn’t discern that meaning from the words used.

How about “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”? If you said that in the appropriate situation to someone who had recently learned English and knew all the words but not the idiom itself you might receive a blank stare in return.

Below is a Biblical example of a Hebrew idiom in a literal, word-for-word translation with the idiom rendered literally followed by a thought-for-thought translation that presents the same verses providing more interpretation for the reader.

“Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none.” (Psa 10:15, English Standard Version)

“Break the power of wicked people. Punish them for the evil they have done.” (Psa 10:15, New Century Version)

In the case above, “break the arm” is an idiomatic expression for “break the power.” In the case below, “the house of bondage” is idiomatic for “slavery” although we could come close to understanding the meaning in that example (mostly because we have heard it used in context many times before).

“I am Jehovah thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. [(land of) slavery] (Deut 5:6, ASV)

“Then he said to Gehazi, Gird up thy loins, and take my staff in thine hand, and go thy way: if thou meet any man, salute him not; and if any salute thee, answer him not again: and lay my staff upon the face of the child.” (2 Kings 4:29)

“Gird up thy loins” is an idiom meaning something like get ready, prepare for vigorous activity.

“There are over a thousand known idioms in the Bible. Unfortunately for us, many of the older translations — like the KJV — translated them faithfully and accurately, but literally. Therefore, their true meanings are misconstrued.” (www.revneal.org/Writings/idioms1.htm)

Do you suppose that the translators of the King James Bible many centuries after the Bible was written understood Biblical idioms? Likely not.

There is one form of idiomatic usage in scripture whereby a person is said to have personally done something when they only allowed or permitted it.  We will see that this idiomatic usage was very well understood by Bible scholars even a couple of centuries ago but it seems to be largely unknown today.

Here is what one website says suggesting why this idiom was used:

“In the Old Testament, God uses an idiom in which a verb is used in a permissive sense. What is written as the Lord “smote Uzzah” was actually the Lord “allowed Uzzah to be smitten.” God set up His laws and man can break himself on them if he so desires. God also set up the law of gravity, but only a fool would think that God killed a man who jumped off a ten-story building. The man killed himself by violating God’s law of gravity. So the true picture in the Scripture is that the adversary kills, hurts, and harms. Man allows this to happen as he attempts to break God’s laws.

God uses the idiom of permission for several reasons. The idiom of permission does not glorify the adversary. Imagine how the Old Testament would read if everything the adversary did to man was attributed to him. We would read about the adversary on every page! This would be clearly out of harmony with God’s commandment in Exodus 23:13, and would not be a blessing to God’s people to read. Furthermore, people in the Old Testament were not equipped to deal with the adversary. If God had revealed the adversary to people who could not deal with him, the people would have become fearful, and been worse off for their knowledge. The adversary was not fully comprehended until Jesus Christ revealed and defeated him (Luke 10:23, 24). Jesus Christ never blamed any sickness, death, or evil on God. The reason that the people in the Old Testament did was due to the fact that God had not yet revealed the adversary. This explains verses like Job 1:21 and I Samuel 2:6. Today most people (even Christians) do not believe in the adversary. They have forgotten the teaching of Jesus Christ and have become “zealous for the law.” attributing sickness and death to the true God.”  (www.picturesofsilver.com/appendix/idiomperm.php)

People will sometimes say “I take the Bible just as it reads.” As can be seen from the discussion above, there is great danger in that position. We need to ask not just “what does the Bible say?” but also “what does the Bible mean?” Then we need to search the scriptures (not merely peruse them) and look for the hidden gems.