1. The primary meaning of words and their common use in a particular age in which they are used, and the importance of synonyms.
2. The grammatical construction and idiomatic peculiarities of the languages of the Bible, and the meaning of the context, both immediate and remote.
3. Comparison of parallel passages on the same subject.
4. The purpose or object of each writer in each particular book.
5. The historical background of each writer and the circumstances under which he wrote.
6. The general plan of the entire Bible, and its moral and spiritual teachings.
7. The agreement of Scripture in its several parts, and its prophecies and their fulfillment.
8. The manners and customs of the particular age and land of each writer.
9. Understanding of how to interpret prophecy, poetry, allegories, symbols, parables, figures of speech, types and all other forms of human expression.
10. The different classes of people and institutions dealt with in Scripture, and the application of the different principles and rules of interpretation below.
When the student keeps all these facts in mind, and the Scripture is interpreted in harmony with these principles, there cannot possibly be any misunderstanding of the Bible. Remember this: Take the Bible literally whenever it is at all possible. When the language cannot be taken literally, then we know it is figurative. Then get the literal truth conveyed by the figurative language as if it were expressed in literal language without the use of figures.
VIII. General Rules of Biblical Interpretation
1. The entire Bible came from God and possesses unity of design and teaching. We shall, therefore, consider both Testaments together as being equally inspired.
2. It may be assumed that no one resorts to speech or writing without having some idea to express; that in order to express that idea he will use words and forms of speech familiar to his hearers or readers; and that if he uses a word or figure of speech in a different sense from what is commonly understood he will make the fact known.
3. The Bible cannot contradict itself. Its teachings in one part must agree with its teachings in another part. Therefore, any interpretation which makes the Bible inconsistent with itself must rest upon false principles.
4. Passages on Christian experience cannot be understood beyond the letter of the word until we enter into the experimental aspect of them. Christian experience should be founded upon the Bible, not Scriptures upon experience.
5. No meaning should be gotten from the Bible except that which a fair and honest, grammatical, and historical interpretation yields.
6. Language is an accumulation of words used to interchange thoughts. To understand the language of the speaker or writer, it is necessary to know the meaning of his words. A true meaning of the words is a true meaning of the sense. It is as true of the Bible as of any other book.
7. Often to fully understand a passage of Scripture, the scope or plan of the entire book must be known. Sometimes the design of the books are made clear, as in the case of Proverbs 1:1-4; Isaiah 1:1-3; John (20:31); Revelation 1:1; etc. If the definite purpose of the book is not stated, the purpose of the book must be gotten from the contents and from the design of the Bible as a whole, as is clear in Jn. 5:39; 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17. Some seeming contradictions are cleared up when this rule is observed. The difference between Paul and James is easily understood when the design of their books is understood and recognized. In Romans, Paul seeks to prove that a man is not saved by works, while in James he seeks to show that a man cannot remain saved unless he brings forth good works.
8. Sometimes the connection is obscured through the use of virtual dialogue between the writers and unseen persons, as in Ps. 15; Isa. 52:13; 63:1-6; Rom. 3; etc.
9. One of the most fundamental rules of interpretation is that of comparing Scripture with Scripture. It is by a strict and honest observance of this rule that the true meaning can be gotten when every other thing has failed to make the meaning clear. Before arriving at the whole truth, be sure that all the Scriptures on a subject are collected together and read at one time. If there is any question left after you have done this, then go over the whole subject carefully until every question is cleared up. One great fault with many people is the acceptance of only part of the Scriptures on a subject and the rejection of other passages that contradict their theory. This is not being honest with the Bible, and it leads to darkness instead of light.
10. Not only should all passages be compared until there is perfect harmony, but also comparison of the words of the different writers should be compared and harmonized. Words often change their meaning from one age to another. The Bible was written in different lands and some of it about 1,800 years apart, so a comparison of words used by the writers is very necessary to see if the same words mean the same in one age as in another. This can always be determined by the subject matter.
11. In some places a statement on a subject may be very brief and seemingly obscure and will be made perfectly clear by a larger passage on the same subject. Always explain the seemingly difficult with the more simple Scriptures. No doctrine founded upon a single verse of Scripture contains the whole of the subject, so do not be dishonest and wrest with Scripture or force a meaning into a passage that is not clearly understood in the passage or in parallel passages on the same subject. Be honest, open minded, studious and zealous to arrive at the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Find out whether the language is literal or figurative, whether the right meaning of the words and terms used is understood and whether or not they have only one meaning. Be sure to choose the meaning that will best harmonize with the subject in the passage itself and with all other passages on the same subject.
12. The progressive character of revelation and the gradual development of truth should be recognized. Some truths found in germ in the Old Testament are fully developed in the New Testament. For example, the idea of blood sacrifices was developed from the time of Abel until it was fully culminated and made eternally clear in the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.
13. The meaning of a word or phrase in the New Testament must not be carried back into Old Testament doctrine unless such is warranted by both Testaments. For example, water baptism, the Lord's Supper, and other New Testament doctrines are not found in the Old Testament at all. It is not proper to ask whether David was baptized in water, or whether Saul was a Christian, because these are New Testament terms.
14. Passages obviously literal should not be spiritualized. For example, making the natural blessings of Canaan the spiritual blessings of Heaven, or regarding the ark of Noah as salvation through Christ, and hundreds of like interpretations. One may get lessons and illustrations from historical passages and make applications in sermons, but in the interpretation they are to be taken literally and should not be spiritualized. Such lessons from the Old Testament historical events form the basis of proof of many church doctrines in some circles. Some men cannot talk about Christ and His bride without referring to Adam and Eve, Isaac and Rebekah, etc. If a person wants to prove a church doctrine he needs to get plain passages on the subject, and not base the proof on historical events which literally happened and which were never recorded to teach such doctrines. Always get two or three plain Scriptures to prove a doctrine, or forget it.
15. The dispensational character of Scripture should be noted so that one can pigeonhole every passage of Scripture in some definite period in God's plan.
16. The three classes of people (the Jews, the Church, and the Gentiles) dealt with in Scripture should be noted. Up to Gen. 12, the race as a whole is dealt with. From Gen. 12 to the New Testament the Jews and the Gentiles are dealt with; and in the New Testament these and the Church of God, made up of Jews and Gentiles, are dealt with (1 Cor. 10:32).
17. In all study of doctrine the practical aspect must be kept in view (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
18. The comparative importance of truth should be emphasized. The positive truths should be studied more than the negative. It is more important to have faith instead of unbelief, to know God better than Satan, etc. So one should learn more about faith and God than unbelief and Satan.
19. General familiarity with the Bible as a whole is very important. Keep reading the Bible over and over until its contents as a whole become familiar. The more one can remember about what he has read, the clearer the Bible will become.
20. A few must's and must not's should be kept in mind in our study of Scripture. We must not handle the Word of God deceitfully (2 Cor. 4:1-4). We must not insist that the Bible is hard to understand. We must not misapply Scripture to a subject or an age to which it does not belong. We must not misinterpret Scripture. We must let the Bible be its own interpreter and be satisfied to accept its own authority as to the meaning of any subject.
In our Lord's time on Earth, to receive the mass of Jewish reasonings, traditions, and interpretations superimposed upon Scripture was to be orthodox, but to return to the authority of the Scriptures themselves was to be heterodox (at variance with commonly accepted doctrine in religion)our Lord's most serious offense to the Jews (Mt. 15:1-9; 16:6-12; 23:1-36; Mk. 3:1-6; 7:1-13; Jn. 5-8). Today the decisions of church councils, decrees of church leaders, and fanciful and spiritual interpretations of many ministers have almost nullified the Word of God and the literal sense of Scripture. Some sects are getting into the habit of doing away with Scriptures that are contrary to their theories by saying, that is a parable, or that is figurative language, as if such language means nothing.
21. Words of Scripture must agree with the content and the subject matter in the passages where found. No meaning should be given to a word that would be in the least out of harmony with any Scripture. For example, the word seen in Jn. 1:18 should be understood to mean comprehended in order to harmonize with all Scriptures stating that men saw God with their natural eyes.
22. Careful attention should be paid to connecting words that connect events with each other, as the words when, then, etc., in Mt. 24:15-16, 21, 23, 40; 25:1.
23. Careful attention should be paid to prepositions, definite articles, names of different persons and places with the same name, same persons and places with different names, and the names of different persons and places that are spelled differently by different authors in different books.
24. Ascertain the exact meaning of the words of Scripture. The way a word is used, the subject matter, and the context often determine the true meaning.
25. Hebrew and Greek idioms should be noted. Sometimes a person having a peculiar characteristic, or subject to a peculiar evil, or destined to a particular destiny is called the child of that evil or destiny (Lk. 10:6; Eph. 2:1-3; 2 Thess. 2:3). The word father is applied to the originator of any custom or to the inventor of something (Gen. 4:20-21; Jn. 8:44). It is also used for ancestor (1 Chron. 1:17). The words son and daughter are sometimes used of descendants or in-laws. (Gen. 46:22; Lk. 3:23). The words brother and cousin are sometimes used of relatives and countrymen (Gen. 14:16 with 11:31; Lk. 1:36, 58). Names of parents are used of posterity (1 Ki. 18:17-18).
26. Preference is sometimes expressed by the word hate (Lk. 14:26; Rom. 9:13).
27. A peculiar idiom concerning numbers must be understood. Sometimes round numbers rather than the exact number are used (Judg. 20:35, 46). This will explain seeming contradictions between numbers. Failure to understand this idiom may have caused copyists and translators to misunderstand the numbers of some passages which seem erroneous and very large. For example, in 1 Sam. 6:19, we read the Lord smote in a very small town 50,070 people, which, in the Hebrew text reads, seventy men two fifties and one thousand or 701001,000, or 1,170 people.
28. Careful attention should be paid to parenthesis, the use of italics (meaning these words are not in the original but supplied in English to make sense), the use of capital letters, marginal notes, references, summaries of chapters, chapter and page headings, the division of the text into chapters and verses, punctuation, obsolete English words, the rendering of the same original words by different English words, and other things about the English translations. All these things are human additions to the original text and should not be relied upon. For example, the running of references to prove a doctrine is sometimes misleading. The references may not be on the same subject, as can be easily detected by the reader.
29. Seeming contradictions in Scripture should be considered in the light of all the principles stated above. It must be kept in mind that the Bible records sayings of men under pressure of trials who said things that they never would have said otherwise. It records sayings of backsliders and rebels against God. It records statements of Satan and demons, and the words of such rebels should never be taken as words from the mouth of God. They should not always be held as truth, for sometimes they are lies. Inspiration guarantees that these rebels said those things, but it does not guarantee that what they said is truth. Sometimes such statements contradict those of God and good men under divine utterance. Enemies of God take such contradictions between what God says and what rebels against God say and use them to prove the Bible contradicts itself. Naturally, such contradictions are found in the Bible, but they are not contradictions between statements made by God. The only statements that can be relied upon as truth are those that come from God and men who speak for God as the Spirit gives utterance, and in these there is no contradiction.
The Bible also records the changes of God's will and plan in a later age over that of an earlier one. Such changes have been taken by the ungodly as contradictions, but these changes had to be made by God because of the sin and rebellion of the people to whom He promised such things and for whom He made a certain plan. For example, in Gen. 1:31 God saw everything He had made and it was good, but in Gen. 6:6 God repented that He had made man. In the meantime, between the two passages, sin and rebellion entered, which made it necessary for God to change His attitude toward man. God has had to alter His plan temporarily because of man's sin, but the original and eternal plan of God for creation has never been changed and never will be. God will finally realize His original purpose; that is the reason for His present dispensational dealings, as we have seen in Lesson One, Point VIII. God deals with each generation as circumstances demand. Sometimes God has had to change His promises to a certain group because they refused to meet the conditions for the fulfillment of these promises.
30. The seeming contradictions in the New Testament will also vanish and be cleared up if men would be as fair with God as they want God to be with them in the judgment. Always look for an explanation and it will be found. For example, men criticize the Bible for lack of harmony between the temptations of Christ in Mt. 4 and those in Lk. 4, but when we consider that there were two separate sets of temptations during the forty days, there is no contradiction. After the first set of tests in Luke, Satan was dismissed for a season, and after the last set of tests in Matthew, Satan was dismissed for good. The seeming contradictions between the sermons of Mt. 5 and Lk. 6 are cleared up when we see that there were two sermonsone on the mount and the other in the plain. The so-called contradictions of the Bible are unreal and imaginary. Because of the lack of information as to the time, places and circumstances, men cannot always judge concerning them, so it would be best always to give God the benefit of the doubt, since He knows all things and was there when they happened. If He did not see fit to give every detail so as to make all things fully clear, that is His wisdom. It should not detract from faith in God and His revelation.
All seeming contradictions in the Bible are easily cleared up with a better knowledge of the text, by correct translation, by knowing the manners and customs of the age and the country in which the books were written, by a wider application of historical facts, and by a fair, sane application of the rules of interpretation given above.
IX. Figurative Language of the Bible
The Bible contains some figurative language. Much confusion has been caused by taking as literal what is figurative, and taking as figurative what is literal. A figure of speech consists in the use of words in a different sense from that which is ordinarily given them. They are used to give emphasis and to add attraction and variety to human expression. They are never used for the purpose of doing away with literal truth, but of setting forth literal truth in another form than that which could be literally expressed. The literal truth in all figurative language is the thing to get and one should not permit figures of speech to do away with the intended truth. If we fail to get the literal truth conveyed, the figure of speech has failed in its purpose.
When God resorted to human language to express His revelation He used all forms of human expression just as men use them. He expressed the unknown in terms of that which is known. Things about Himself and the invisible world He made clear by the things of the visible world (Rom. 1:19-20). We must understand His revelation in this light. No meaning should be given to any Scripture beyond that which a natural and literal interpretation yields. Ideas can be enlarged from the finite to the infinite, but no change is necessary in the idea while making such enlargement.
But how can we tell whether the language is literal or figurative? This is one of the simplest questions to answer. Any man with ordinary intelligence can distinguish between the two ways of expressing truth. The one fundamental rule to determine whether the language is literal or figurative is this: take every statement in the Bible as literal when it is at all possible and where it is clear that it is literal; otherwise, it is figurative. In other words, what cannot be literal must be figurative. The subject matter itself as expressed in human language will always make this clear.
One must be sure the language is figurative before giving it a figurative meaning. If it seems hard to determine by the words of the subject matter, then Scriptures on the same subject will clear up the difficulty. There are always plain literal statements in the Bible proving every doctrine. So if a figurative statement is found in the Bible on the same subject, explain the figurative passage with the literal passages. Remember, no figure of speech ever does away with the literal truth, but merely expresses it in another way. Surely with such an abundance of literal passages, the few figurative statements on the same subject in Scripture can be understood.
Figures of speech are of two main kinds: first, those involving only a word, as in Gal. 2:9 where Peter, James, and John are called pillars of the Church; second, those involving a thought expressed in several words or sentences, as the parable, allegory, symbol, type, riddle, fable, enigma, etc.
People who have any knowledge of these forms of human expression should understand them in the Bible just as they do in other books because God used all these different forms of expression in giving His revelation. He used them for the same purpose as men doto convey literal truths. All men can understand the Bible alike on the same grounds in which they understand other books where these forms of human language are used, if they will be as sensible about the Bible as they are with other books. Men do not spiritualize other books, or make every literal statement in them to be symbolic and mystical, and there is no excuse for them to do this with the Bible.
When such human language is used in other books, men do not differ so much. They do not make them mean anything that they want them to mean. They are sensible with the writings of others and put forth every effort to get the intended idea of the author, but when it comes to the Bible the intent of God as plainly stated means nothing to the average person. Just so each person can change and interpret to suit himself, he thinks that his interpretation must be the truth of the Bible.
This method of interpretation is nothing less than the satanic opposition against God which tries to turn men away from the thoughts God wants them to get in order for them to be blessed. If Satan can succeed in his purpose, God and His Word will be discredited, and men will pay little heed to what is written. The Bible should mean the same to all men, and it would if all men would be sensible and interpret it in the plain, literal sense as they do other books. Men will not be held guiltless for this attitude, so while there is yet time let us all grasp a sane view of the Bible and understand it just as it is written.
With a knowledge of the general plan of God, what the Scriptures are, and how to interpret them, we shall now begin a study of the Bible and its eternal plan for man.
Taken From God's Plan for Man.
Pastor Jack Howell
"Some bring God's curse on them by marking off part of the Bible, calling it erroneous, uninspired, less than the very Word of God." - Dr. John R. Rice
"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God to salvation to every one that believes; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." (Romans 1:16)
Proper Principles of Bible Study