Much has been written about this, but essentially I believe that prayerful Bible reading of itself will open up the meaning to us. The following are just a few practical hints how to interpret the Bible:
- Make notes in your Bible. Don't worry about using fancy colours or only writing when you have the right kind of pen or pencil. The actual process of note taking is what is important. Look at a man's Bible, and it will probably tell you something about his attitude to God's word. Our Bible becomes a kind of personal document of our faith, a statement of our relationship between us and our God. Always read or listen to the word with a pen or pencil in hand; set out to be a Bible student, not just someone who goes through the motion of daily Bible reading or attending a Bible study in a ritualistic sense. God speaks to us in a personal way through His word, He will open our eyes to see things there in response to our prayers, and thereby He will personally guide us in our walk to His Kingdom. This is why I recommend marking your Bible for yourself, in your own way (and for this reason alone I can't very strongly recommend the systems of organized Bible marking which are available). The Kings of Israel (types of us) were to copy out the Law for themselves, and read that copy all their lives (Dt. 17:18,19). That book was a statement of the covenant relationship between them and their God; and it seems to me there was good psychological reason to insist that they made their own personal copy of it, and read from it for themselves.
- Harry Whittaker coined the term 'Bible television'; and it is indeed a help in how to interpret the Bible. The idea is that we imagine that the scene we have read is being presented on television; we try to re-live the scene and see it from a birds-eye perspective. This often enlarges our appreciation of the narrative, and livens up our Bible reading. For example, play Bible television with Exodus 7; the magicians of Egypt tried to replicate the miracles of Moses, and apparently succeeded first of all. But when you imagine it, the whole thing must have been almost comical. For example, Moses made all the water in Egypt into blood, and then, after this, while all the water was blood, the magicians claimed to do the same (Ex. 7:22). We can imagine them running round, desperately looking for water which hadn't turned to blood, perhaps dyeing some of it white, and then turning it red and saying 'There you are, my Lord, we can do just the same, there's nothing this Moses can do which we can't'. We are left to imagine Pharaoh's courtiers almost smiling, knowing that Moses' God was no match for their religious nonsenses (cp. Ex. 10:7; 11:3).
- Be aware that there are some things in Scripture which are recorded in such a way as to promote meditation, and therefore they will always be ambiguous in terms of the actual interpretation which is sustainable. We can't always say " This word means X, this phrase means Y, therefore this verse means interpretation Z; and if you don't agree with that, you don't really accept the Bible" . Because it is possible to say that about the interpretation of basic doctrine doesn't mean that we can adopt this attitude to the interpretation of every Bible passage. The record of the crucifixion is a good example of this. Or consider how it is recorded that some of those healed by the Lord didn't afterwards do what He said: one preached to his whole city rather than to his family (Lk. 8:39); another didn't obey the Lord's plea to not tell anyone else (Mk. 1:45). How are we to read these responses? Rank disobedience? Misguided zeal? Zeal in doing over and above what they were asked? You may have your ideas, and it is right that we should meditate upon these things and discuss them. But I suggest that ultimately they are left 'hanging' for the very purpose of promoting meditation and personal application, rather than being statements which shout for an obvious interpretation, like an equation 'A + 2 = 5, so what is A?'. Latter day prophecies are, it seems to me (although not to all brethren!) in the same category, of statements and types which cannot have an exact interpretation dogmatically attached to them (although we may grasp the general picture), but rather are presented to us to promote meditation. Any who have tried to construct a sequence of events for the last days will have been forced to this conclusion.
- Look up the references in your margin. Generally, these are a reflection of good Biblical scholarship.
- Use a concordance to guide you to other places where a theme or personality occurs. But avoid one temptation: don't place too much stress on the meanings of Hebrew and Greek words, unless you absolutely have to. There is a type of Bible study which is simply a list of alternative translations, placing great importance on the root meanings of words (often questionably derived by Gesenius). I am wary of expositions which depend on twisting the meaning of the original. We don't know those languages, and the lexicon is a crude way of analyzing them. Under inspiration (mind), the New Testament writers did construct expositions which hinged around the meaning or alternative meaning of a Hebrew word. But this doesn't mean that we are wise to seek to do this as our main method of Bible study. The best expositions are those which rest on a clear, evident connection, either linguistically or semantically, with other parts of Scripture. Such links are evident in any translation, in any language. Most generations of the body of Christ haven't been able to read, yet alone have access to the concordances and lexicons which we have. These things enhance our exposition, but they are only icing on the cake. Davidson rightly observes: “Usage is the only safe guide; the concordance is always a safer guide than the lexicon” (1). Online concordances and various translations are all widely available on the internet as freeware- e-sword would be a good example. Each word in Scripture is given a number. You can then see what that word strictly means in the Hebrew or Greek by looking up that number. Most usefully, you can run searches for where such words occur together- e.g. if you search for " lamb" and " God" , you will find all references to the idea of God's lamb, with all the meaning it has for Bible students eagerly searching for information about the Lord Jesus as that lamb. And so beware of what has been called the ‘root fallacy’. Easy access to Hebrew lexicons lead many Bible students to look up a word, then look at it’s root, and decide that the root is therefore the meaning- especially if it fits in to their idea of what the passage under study should mean! But this isn’t a true way of analyzing language. Words with different meanings can have the same root. Take the words ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity’. Sadly, these two words are confused all too often in Christian churches- e.g., ‘To create unity in the church, everyone must come to the breaking of bread meeting uniformly dressed, all wearing a certain kind of clothing’. No, ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity’ are two quite different things; and yet they come from the same root word, ‘uno’. The wider problems of the ‘root fallacy’ have been discussed at great length elsewhere (2).
- Any serious study of a Bible passage requires us to look at it in different translations and make some effort to understand the real meaning of the original- for sometimes the sense of a passage can completely change, depending on translation (especially in Job). Thus in the AV of 2 Cor. 10:7, Paul is made to ask a question: " Do ye look on things after the outward appearance?" . In the RV, this becomes an affirmation: " Ye look at the things that are before your face" . But in other versions, it becomes a blunt demand from Paul that the Corinthians should open their eyes to the true facts: " Look at things which stare you in the face!" (J.B. Phillips).
- Watch out for quotations and allusions within Scripture; there are connections not only between New and Old Testaments, but also (e.g.) between Paul's letters; Peter alludes to Paul's writings, Paul frequently alludes to the words of John the Baptist; Jeremiah often refers to Job's words and experiences. Note the context of the source quotation, because this often sheds light on the passage in which it is quoted. Be aware that many NT passages mix a number of OT passages in one 'quotation'; e.g. " The deliverer will come from Zion" (Rom. 11:26) is a conflated quotation of Ps. 14:7; 53:6 and Is. 59:20. And Heb. 13:5 combines quotes from Gen. 28:15; Josh. 1:5 and Dt. 31:16. Heb. 13:5 doesn’t quote any of them exactly, but mixes them together.
- When you look up one of these quotations, note the context. Often (but not always) when the New Testament quotes the Old, there is something in the context which is relevant, and which explains why the NT writer quoted the verse he did. Beware of the temptation to just use Bible passages on a surface level; i.e., because the words as they stand in your translation seem to suit what you want to prove, don't just use them, but check if the context fits. It has been truly observed that the NT writers " quoted not texts but contexts" ; and therefore we should be wary of using Bible verses just as clichés.
- Attention must be paid to the context. Perhaps this above all teaches us how to interpret the Bible accurately. The more you study, the more this becomes apparent. Because a word or phrase means something in one context doesn't mean it always means this in any context. Thus " leaven" can be a symbol of both the Gospel and also sin. And the eagle is a symbol of several quite different enemies of Israel, as well as of God Himself. Another simple example is in Dt. 3:20; the land " beyond Jordan" refers to land on the West of the river; but in Josh. 9:10 the same phrase refers to land on the East. That same phrase " beyond Jordan" means something different in different contexts. We can't always assume, therefore, that the same phrase must refer to the same thing wherever it occurs. Read the Gospels in the context of other Gospels; read the prophets in the context of the historical records; read the NT epistles in the context of Acts. Again, a quick example: Paul said that he was going to Jerusalem, " Saying, After I have been there, I must also see Rome" (Acts 19:21). But actually he had written to the Romans that he would drop in to see them on his way to Spain (Rom. 15;23). Spain was his real ambition, to preach the Gospel in " the regions beyond" (2 Cor. 10:16 and context)- not Rome. But Acts 19:21 gives the impression that Rome was the end of his vision.
- But be aware that when it comes to prophecy, in the sense of foretelling future events, the New Testament sometimes seems to quote the Old Testament without attention to the context- at least, so far as human Bible scholarship can discern. The early chapters of Matthew contain at least three examples of quotations whose context just cannot fit the application given: Mt. 2:14,15 cp. Hos. 11:1; Mt. 2:17,18 cp. Jer. 31:15; Mt. 1:23 cp. Is. 7:14. Much Christian material about Israel shows how they have returned to the land, rebuilt the ruined cities, made the desert blossom etc., as fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies in Jeremiah etc. The context of these prophecies often doesn’t fit a return to the land by Jews in the 20th century; but on the other hand, the correspondence between these prophecies and recent history is so remarkable that it can’t be just coincidence. So again we are led to conclude that a few words here and there within a prophecy can sometimes have a fulfilment outside that which the context seems to require.
- If you have (or can make) time, try to make a concentrated study of a Bible book. James is a good one to begin with. Note down what the verses are actually telling you in practice.
- Compare the parallel records when studying the Gospels. Be aware that often the records are summarized and highly condensed. Thus sometimes what is recorded as being actually said may be only a summary of the real words (consider what the Canaanite woman actually said: Mt. 15:27 cp. Mk. 7:28). Some wonderful things come out of comparing the records. Thus the Luke record has the Lord saying that two sparrows are sold for one farthing; Mark records that He said that five sparrows were sold for two farthings. So what did the Lord really say? I suggest something like this: 'As you know, two sparrows are sold for one farthing, they cost half a farthing each; but often, as you know, five sparrows are sold for two farthings, they'll throw one extra in for free, they're worth so little'.
- Every word of God is inspired. Be aware of the huge impact of brief, basic statements. Whoever isn't for me is against me. You can't serve two masters. Love the Lord God with all your heart. These basic statements should form our whole attitude to the world, to our life decisions, to our very essential being. Whilst basic doctrine is provable by many passages, don't be afraid of accepting something from 'just' one passage that clearly speaks to you. And, in this context, don't let anyone tell you that (e.g.) sisters shouldn't wear head coverings 'Because the Bible only says it once'. How many times does God have to tell us something before we take Him and His words seriously?
- Be aware that the original writers didn't have quotation marks or brackets (consider where Paul might have used them in 1 Cor. 15:45-47!). For example, throughout Corinthians Paul is quoting phrases from their allegations and questions, but it is not always exactly apparent. Consider 2 Cor. 12:16. Perhaps using quotation marks we could translate: " Nevertheless, " being crafty" , I " caught you with guile" " . The New Testament so often seems to mix interpretation with Old Testament quotation; here especially we need to imagine the use of quotation marks. According to the Western text of Acts 18:4, Paul " inserted the name of the Lord Jesus" at the appropriate points in his public reading of the Old Testament prophecies. This was after the pattern of some of the Jewish targums (commentaries) on the prophets, which inserted the word " Messiah" at appropriate points in Isaiah's prophecies of the suffering servant (e.g. the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets).
- Often a parenthesis is used to develop a digression, and then the writer returns to the main theme. Perceiving this is a key to how to interpret the Bible. Consider these examples:
1) Gal. 3:9-14. Verses 10-13 are a parenthesis concerning the curse of the Law. If read without the parenthesis, the flow of thought goes straight on: " They which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham (v.9)...that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles" (v.14).
2) Sometimes the artificial chapter breaks (which were added by man) break up the parenthesis. Is. 24:23 speaks of how " the Lord of Hosts shall reign in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem" ; the following first five verses of Is. 25 are a parenthesis; and then Is. 25:6 continues: " in this mountain...he will destroy..." . If we fail to realize the parenthesis, and if we only started reading at chapter 25:1, we would be thinking: " Which mountain?" . But if we realize the parenthesis, and if we disregard the chapter division, all is plain: " ...in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem (24:23)...in this mountain... (25:6)" . Whilst I strongly recommend the use of Bible reading planners such as the Bible Companion, this is one of the drawbacks of any system of reading a chapter per day. Reading through a book, especially in just two or three sittings, enables us to grasp the theme much better.
3) One of the most telling uses of parenthesis (and the most misunderstood) is in the Olivet prophecy. We frequently struggle to understand which verses apply to AD70 and which to the last days. But if Mt. 24:8-22 are read as a parenthesis specifically concerning the events of AD70, all becomes clear: the first seven verses and Mt. 24:23 ff. refer to events of both the last days and AD70. Try doing the same in Lk. 21. But I'll leave you to work through this for yourself!
4) " We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed (as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise) in your hearts" (2 Pet. 1:19). We must take heed to the word in our hearts- this is the idea, rather than any suggestion of a mystical coming of Christ in our hearts.
5) " Now the sojourning of the children of Israel (who dwelt in Egypt) was four hundred and thirty years" (Ex. 12:40). This solves the chronological problem which this verse otherwise creates.
- Not only are paragraph and chapter breaks sometimes misleading, verse breaks can be too. Inserting punctuation into translation of Hebrew and Greek texts is very difficult. Thus Eph. 1:4,5 in the AV reads: “...that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us”. Shift the colon and another emphasis is apparent: “...that we should be holy and without blame before him: in love having predestinated us”. When stuck with a ‘difficult’ verse (and they all are in some ways!), don’t be afraid to try re-jigging the punctuation a bit.
- Watch out for the use of figures of speech. How we interpret the Bible accurately depends upon grasping these. Ellipsis and metaphor are the most common. Ellipsis is where as it were a gap is left in the sentence, and we have to fill in the intended sense. Thus: " For as many as have sinned without law, shall perish also without [being judged by] law" (Rom. 2:12).
- The Spirit often uses hyperbole, i.e. exaggerated language to make a point. Thus the shepherd left the 99 to seek the one; but the Lord never leaves us. The point is that His concern for the lost is so great. Or consider Jer. 7:22,23: " I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: but this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice..." . God did command them to offer sacrifices. But compared to His overwhelming desire for them to love His word rather than feel obligated by specific, concrete commands, effectively He didn't command them concerning sacrifices. Another example would be when Ez. 16:51,52 says that the sin of Jerusalem justified Samaria’s sin. Sin doesn’t justify sin; it’s a shocking, arresting hyperbole.
- Sometimes, what appears to be hyperbole may in fact be irony. Thus when Paul says that the least respected member should settle disputes, he was not necessarily saying that this in fact was what he was advocating (the NT teaching about eldership would contradict this); he was surely using irony. Likewise in his teaching about head coverings, Paul is surely using irony: 'If you throw away your head covering, you may as well throw away your hair!' is how I read 1 Cor. 11:5. " ...Seeing ye yourselves are wise" is one of several more evident uses of irony in Corinthians.
- Appreciate that the Bible uses this device of irony quite extensively. Realizing the use of irony and appreciating the point behind it is directly related to our familiarity with Scripture. The more we love it and are truly familiar with it, the more we will grasp the use of irony. This is one example of how God has written the Bible to progressively open itself up to those who truly love it. The events associated with the trial and death of the Lord Jesus seem to be more densely packed with irony than anywhere else. This may be because the Lord's perception of the irony was a strength to Him. Thus, and this is only one simply example, He would have seen the irony of sinners crowning Him. He knew that one day they really would, in their hearts.
- Try to see the historical events which occurred to Israel as relevant to you personally. Israel's keeping of the Passover implied that each subsequent Israelite had personally been redeemed that night. All down the years, they were to treat the stranger fairly: " for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 23:9). The body of believers, the body of Christ, is not only world-wide geographically at this point in time; it stretches back over time as well as distance, to include all those who have truly believed. This is why David found such inspiration from the history of Israel in his own crises (e.g. Ps. 77).
- Try to memorize Scripture, run through verses as you go about life, play tapes of Bible studies or Bible reading in the background (instead of the mindless radio). Much of Scripture was probably memorized by various contemporary believers. " This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth" (Josh. 1:8) presumably means that Joshua was commanded to keep reciting it to himself in daily life, so that he would be obedient to it. The way Jeremiah consciously and unconsciously quotes and alludes to Job would suggest that he had memorized that book. And many of the Psalms are written in such a way (in Hebrew) as to be easily memorized. David memorized God's law and meditated upon it (hardly the easiest part of Scripture to memorize, at least to Western eyes; Ps. 119:16). He recited it to himself in the night seasons.
- Watch out for the danger of over interpretation. George Orwell, better known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984, was a literary critic of great perception. He observed that all sort of literature, "from Dickens to seaside postcards", can be analyzed in order to yield information and conclusions which it was never intended to provide (3). The Bible is more than literature, as it's inspired by God; but it is also literature, and in this sense it is just as prone to this kind of mistreatment as any other literature. And because human beings so want God to as it were be on their side, there's no book like it which has been so forced into giving support for human ideas. We have to be careful we don't do the same. We must be led to truth by the Bible, and not over interpret it. And I would suggest, as a rule of thumb, that over-interpretation occurs when someone comes to the Bible seeking support for their preconceived ideas.
Bible study is vital for every believer. How to interpret the Bible is indeed an essential skill to grasp. God is His word. Our attitude to His word is our attitude to Him. If we love Him, we will love His word. We will meditate upon it, we will catch the spirit of the faithful Israelite, who wrote the word upon his doorposts, talked about it over his meals... Yet we must live in this world. We can't have our nose in a Bible all day (although we could all snatch a verse or so for meditation during the daily round). I can only suggest the 'umbrella' answer: If we know our mother has cancer and will receive the outcome of tests in a week; if we are in love; somehow we will do our daily tasks, but with a sense of something else hanging over us, permeating the atmosphere in which we live. And so it can be with God's word. One can sense how much Paul loved the word, and how much he had meditated upon it. Thus he speaks of how " Esaias is very bold, and saith...Esaias also crieth concerning Israel..." (Rom. 9:27; 10:20). Paul had meditated deeply upon Isaiah's words, even to the point of considering the tone of voice in which he first spoke them. It was because the rulers of Israel “knew not...the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day” (Acts 13:27) that they crucified the Lord. He speaks of their “voices” rather than merely their words. They had heard the words, but not felt and perceived that these were the actual voices of men who being dead yet speak. They didn’t feel the wonder of inspiration in their attitude to Bible study- even though they would have devoutly upheld the position that the Bible texts were inspired. And here we have a lesson for ourselves.
(1) A.B. Davidson, The Theology Of The Old Testament (New York: Scribners, 1906).