Guidelines to Proper Interpretation of Scripture
2 Timothy 2:15 says we must “study to show ourselves approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The following guidelines are not exhaustive, but will give students of scripture a general understanding of the interpretive process. They are meant to be practical tools anyone can benefit from.
Differentiate Between Exegesis and Hermeneutics
Biblical exegesis is a systematic process by which a person arrives at a reasonable and coherent sense of the meaning and message of a biblical passage. In the process of exegesis, a passage must be viewed in its historical and grammatical context with its purpose and time of writing taken into account.
Hermeneutics stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game. The rules are not the game, and the game is meaningless without the rules. Hermeneutics proper is not exegesis, but exegesis is applied hermeneutics. In this sense, hermeneutics may also be seen as the method of exegesis.
Using this analogy, hermeneutics is the rule-book of the game while exegesis is the game. Hermeneutics deals with the rules of interpretation, while exegesis deals with the actual interpretation of the passage. This is done in four ways:
- The context of the time it was written.
- The purpose for which it was written.
- An analysis of the original language.
- The relevancy to our culture and lives.
Differentiate Between Metaphoric and Literal Language
Metaphoric language is usually easily distinguished from literal language. For instance, when the writer uses “like” or “as” in describing something they saw in a vision or dream, it is clearly metaphoric or symbolic. John did this frequently when recording what he saw in his revelation on the Isle of Patmos. He was attempting to share futuristic things he had never seen before using what he had from the first century to draw from. A few obvious metaphors in the Bible include:
- “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust” (Psalms 91:4). God is clearly not a chicken or eagle. This passage was talking about God’s protective covering.
- God’s “stretched out arm” (Jeremiah 32:17). Jeremiah was not describing God’s body parts. He was referring to God’s mighty and creative power.
- “The Lord thy God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). God is not saying He’s a blast furnace. This verse was describing Him as a jealous God.
- “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). Jesus was not portraying Himself to be a loaf of bread. He was saying we get our spiritual sustenance from Him.
- “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Jesus was not saying He is a light bulb. He is the source of truth and enlightenment.
Approach the Scriptures with Humility
“But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2). The first requisite for one to understand God’s Word is humility. We dare not approach the Bible with an attitude of pride and superiority.
Many approach scripture on a mere intellectual basis. The Bible is a spiritual book and must be understood spiritually. “The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We must cry out in humble dependency as David, “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law” (Psalms 119:18).
We must approach the Word to find out what we are to believe, not to support what we believe. When we find something we disagree with, we rationalize scripture until it reconciles with our beliefs, or we search for scripture in support of what we believe and to refute what we disagree with. We must approach the study of God’s Word with humility, depending on the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth as to what we are to believe (John 16:13-14).
Approach the Scriptures with a Submissive Spirit
Jesus said, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17). If we are not willing to obey God and put into practice what He shows us, our insight into His Word will be limited at best. “To everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away” (Matthew 25:29).
We must be willing to do what He reveals to us if we expect Him to give us further insight and understanding into His Word. This is why many people don’t get much out of the Bible. If we are going to have an ongoing revelation (unveiling) of God’s Word, we must have a “yes” mentality. Say, “Yes God! Whatever you reveal to me, whatever revelation you give me, I will walk in it.” If this is our daily attitude, we will be on the way to “rightly dividing the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Pray for Illumination from the Holy Spirit
The unregenerate man can’t understand God’s Word. As soon as a person is born again (John 3:3, 1 Peter 1:23) he immediately has an understanding of scripture. The light has been turned on. We simply cannot understand the Word apart from the Holy Spirit. The Bible says, “The natural man receives (understands) not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
We must be completely dependent on the Spirit of God when seeking to interpret scripture. It is the Holy Spirit who illuminates our minds and spirits to understand the Word. He is the one who guides us into all truth (John 14:26, John 16:13-14, 1 John 2:20, 1 John 2:27). Whenever we study the Word we must cry out to God, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law” (Psalms 119:18).
Use Dictionaries and Reference Books
On an elementary level, start by using dictionaries and comparing translations. Bible Gateway is an excellent tool that allows you to quickly look up verses and passages. For example, Hebrews 2:18 in the KJV says, “He is able to succour them that are tempted.” The NASB substitutes succour with “come to the aid of” and the NIV uses the word “help.” The word succour actually means to help or come to the aid of. It’s not that succour is wrong but it’s simply not used often any more. For more in depth studies use tools like Strong’s Concordance, Thayer’s Lexicon, Vine’s Expository Dictionary and Wuest’s Word Studies.
It’s foolish and prideful to think we can’t learn from others. Commentaries are great tools that will help you understand and interpret scripture. I recommended you use at least three commentaries, and preferably seven or more. This way you are not using one person’s opinion and can pool together all their insight and let the Holy Spirit give you the revelation He wants for you. There are many useful commentaries, but I prefer Chuck Smith, Matthew Henry, William Barclay, Henry Ironside, Martyn Lloyd Jones, G. Campbell Morgan, and J. Vernon McGee to name a few.
Interpret Scripture with Scripture
Scripture is always the best interpretation of scripture. The Bible says, “Precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). As we compare the passage or verse we are studying with other scripture we get a more balanced interpretation of scripture. A particular verse or passage should always be cross referenced with other related scripture.
Interpret Scripture According to its Context
We can prove anything from scripture by taking a phrase out of context. To get the proper meaning of a verse or passage we must carefully look at the verses and chapters surrounding what we are studying. For instance, we can disprove the existence of God by taking a phrase out of context. The Bible says, “There is no God.” But when the context is viewed, we see that, “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalms 14:1). There may be many great applications of scripture but only one proper interpretation of a passage.
Interpret Scripture According to the Time it was Written
Understanding what was going on at the time a passage was written is imperative to proper interpretation of God’s Word. We should study what the customs were at the time and what was happening in the particular church, city, area, or region. For instance, many New Testament letters were directed to a specific church to counteract problems that were going on in the congregation or city.
For example, when dealing with women wearing make up and jewelry in 1 Peter 3:3-5 and 1 Timothy 2:9, Peter emphasized their adorning should not be “merely” those things. During that time prostitutes typically adorned themselves in this way, so the emphasis was for them not to look like they were women of the night. They were not saying women should not look as attractive as they can. Henry Ironside commenting on this said, “Any old barn looks better with a new coat of paint.”
Another good example is in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 when Paul told women to “keep silent in the churches.” The early church setting was similar to the synagogue in that the women and men sat on opposite sides and women would often call to their husband or ask a question in the midst of the service. Paul wasn’t saying women were never allowed to speak, but he was simply saying they were not to be disruptive.
He was telling the women that if they have questions they should “ask their husbands at home” (1 Corinthians 14:35). This is a great application for people who talk during church services. It’s very disruptive. Any discussion or conversing should be done when the service is over and not during the sermon. When this takes place, it’s no wonder people don’t get anything out of the message. Talking also interferes with what the Holy Spirit is wanting to do in the lives of others in the service. A couple good reference books are Halley’s Bible Handbook and Manners and Customs of the Bible.
The Most Obvious Interpretation is Usually the Correct One
God doesn’t hide things and try and make His Word difficult to understand. He says what He means. Yes, we can find deep insights and applications from a verse or passage, but the most obvious meaning is usually the correct interpretation. Years ago I was ministering to someone and they said, “Everyone interprets things differently. It’s all according to how one interprets the Bible.”
I quoted Romans 3:23, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Then I asked what it meant to them. They replied, “We have all sinned.” Then I quoted Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” Again I asked what that verse meant to them. They said, “You sin you die.” The Word means exactly what it says. So, the most obvious interpretation of any verse or passage is usually the correct one.