Reading the Bible Literally

Some years ago I read something scoffing at Christians for taking the Bible literally. One example the author used was the Bible’s speaking of the sun rising and setting, because of course we know that the Earth revolves around the sun: the sun itself doesn’t rise and set. Yet meteorologists use the terms sunrise and sunset every day. We understand in the English language what those terms mean while not taking them literally.

Taking the Bible literally means we don’t interpret it as myth or stories, even though it contains a few stories in it. But we understand the Bible uses different expressions of literature which are not strictly literal without detracting from an overall literal approach to the Bible. What are some of these literary devices?

Idioms. Terms like sunrise and sunset, as mentioned, or phrases like “kick the bucket,”  a somewhat slangish euphemism for dying. Making a “bucket list” capitalizes on that idiom to mean having a list of things one wants to experience or accomplish before dying. On a side note, I was amused recently to see someone take that a step further in an article on “my bucket list for the summer,” apparently not knowing the significance of the bucket in that phrase.

A couple of Biblical idioms:

  • The land of Canaan “flowing with milk and honey.” We understand that to mean plenty, not literal rivers of milk and honey.
  • To be “stiff-necked” or to stiffen the neck indicate stubbornness, not a need to see a chiropractor.

Metaphors. A simile compares two things using the phrase “like” or “as”: “Her smile is as bright as a summer day.” A metaphor does the same thing but without “like” or “as.” In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we have this famous metaphor: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

A few Biblical metaphors: ‘Behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song of Solomon 1:15b. “You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13a).

Anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics to something not human. “The flower lifted it face to the sun.” “The wind roared.”

Biblical examples: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). The Bible says that “God is a spirit” (John 4:24) and as such does not have body parts as we know them. Yet to communicate with us in ways we can understand, the Bible speaks as if He does. “ And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:5). Psalm 17:6 says, “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.” Deuteronomy 33:27 says, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” We understand that to mean that God’s care is just as real as if He were literally holding us in his arms.

Personification is closely related to anthropomorphism, meaning to treat something abstract or inanimate as if it was human. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems personifies death: “Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality.”

Biblical example: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Proverbs 1:20-23).

Hyperbole exaggerates something for effect. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

Biblical examples: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). “The cities are great and fortified up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28b).

Poetry uses many of these devices, but poetry itself is often phrased in a non-literal way. To quote Emily Dickinson again:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

Biblical examples: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). God didn’t actual send in giant birds, a la The Lord of the Rings, but His care of them was just as if He did. “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:9-10).

Parables are very short stories with a moral or religious meaning, like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” They differ from fables in that they have human characters and are plausible, whereas fables use animals, sometimes inanimate objects or nature, and are usually obviously fanciful.

In the Bible, Jesus’s teaching abounds with parables: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the sower, the good Samaritan, etc. But there are parables in other parts of the Bible as well, especially among the prophets, like the one Nathan told that convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba.

Symbols involve an item being used to represent something else, like a newscaster referring to the White House and meaning the government: “The White House issued a statement today…”

Revelation is full of symbols. The dragon and the beast, for instance, are not animals but evil people whose characters are represented by those beings. There has been argument over the elements of communion, or the Lord’s supper, or the Lord’s table, for years, but it makes the most sense to believe that the elements of bread and wine are symbolic rather than actually containing the body and blood of Christ. One indication of this is the reaction of the disciples as they listened. They were not above questioning and even arguing with the Lord, but no one batted an eye at His statements at the last Supper, indicating that they didn’t think He was advocating cannibalism.

When we listen to the news, read nonfiction, or hear a speech, we can easily discern these literary devices, and we don’t dismiss everything else the speaker or writer says as symbolic or untrue because they use anthropomorphism or an idiom or a metaphor. We’re able to discern from the context whether certain phrases are literal or figurative, usually without even thinking about it, and we get the message the communicator is trying to convey.

I, for one, am glad the Bible uses different literary genres of devices rather than just giving us lists of facts and truths and teachings. Many of us “get” truth in different ways – some prefer it plainspoken, some benefit from a story or illustration. Hearing the same truth in the law, in a parable, in poetry, in prophecy, in an epistle, reinforces that truth to us.

The Bible uses these devices, but the Bible is not wholly a story or parable or fable. There are some who interpret the first two chapters of Genesis or all of Genesis or even the greater part of the Old Testament as myth. But much of the OT is literal history.

The better way to read the Bible is in an ordinary way like you would any other nonfiction, taking it as meaning what the words would ordinarily mean unless the context indicates it is figurative speech. For instance, there is nothing in the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation that indicate anything is meant other than normal 24 hour days. Sure, Peter says “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” but that doesn’t mean every time you see the word “day” in the Bible that it could possibly mean 1,000 years.The ordinary reading of this passage would indicate that creation took place in the span of a week. That’s certainly not beyond God’s power to do. Good people differ on this, and I don’t think anyone’s salvation hinges on whether they think the days in Gen. 1 and 2 are 24-hour days or eons. But I have read accounts where this is taken as mythic or symbolic that then skew other parts of the Bible to mean something quite different from what a more literal reading would indicate. Though good people can differ here and there on some of the fine points, overall a literal approach (except where obviously figurative) is the best.

And by saying that we read it in an ordinary way, I am not discounting that we need the Holy Spirit’s help to open our understanding. The Bible is a supernatural book and we need God’s help to understand it rightly. I just mean that we read it as literal unless it’s obviously figurative.

There is much more that could be said about this, but I am way past the time I allowed for this post, and it’s plenty long already.

A couple of other helpful articles are Taking the Bible Literally (though I’d disagree with him on a couple of points, like hell) and Do Faithful Christian Take the Bible Literally?

(Sharing with Inspire me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival, Tell His Story, Faith on Fire)

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Thoughts on the MacArthur ESV Study Bible

MacArthur ESVI mentioned in my last Nightstand post that I had finished reading the ESV version of the MacArthur Study Bible but wasn’t planning to review it. How do you review a Bible, after all? But one friend said she’d like to hear my thoughts about it. So here goes.

I’d like to discuss it in two parts: the ESV version and then MacArthur’s notes.

The subject of Bible versions can be touchy and whole books have been written on them – I can’t possibly go into everything concerning them here. The best book I know of on the subject is From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man: A Layman’s Guide to How We Got Our Bible. A former pastor, someone whose exposition I trust more than anyone else I’ve heard or read, is one of the contributors, I knew one of the others in college, and I have heard a couple of others speak. That doesn’t mean these men are infallible, of course, but I have heard and read enough of them to generally trust them, and I have read enough elsewhere that supports what they say. Probably the biggest issue for those who are “King James Only” is the manuscripts that the different version or translated from. I think this book handles that ably, and I have read and heard enough to feel assured about reading version like the NASB (New American Standard Bible) and ESV (English Standard Version), as well, as, of course, the KJV and NKJV. (If you differ with me on this, that’s your prerogative, but I really don’t want to get into any arguments about it here. I have known some KJO people to think less of other Christians who use different versions, or even to break fellowship with people who don’t use the KJV. I think that is definitely going way too far.)

If you’ve read much about Bible translations, you’ve probably come across different theories or processes. No translation of anything from one language to another is going to be word for word exactly, literally, like the original. There are differences in syntax: for instance, Spanish puts the adjective after the noun while English usually puts it before: Casa Blanca for White House. One language may not have the exact word equivalent for every word in another language, and so on. If you’ve ever looked at a Greek interlinear New Testament, which has the Greek words and then the corresponding English above or below them, you’ll get some idea of the difficulty. (Take a look at Luke 2, for example.) Translators fall into two camps: those who try to translate word for word, staying as close as possible to the original while making ti understandable in another language, and those who translate thought for thought. The thought-for-thought translations are usually the most readable, but the least accurate.

Forgive the excess background material, but I felt I needed to go into that to explain that I think the ESV is probably my favorite translation. The KJV will always hold a special place in my heart, and I tend to think in King James, after having used it and read it for over 40 years now. But the ESV seems to me to best combine accuracy and readability.

Now on to MacArthur’s notes. I think this is the first time I have ever read through a study Bible, and I found the bulk of the notes very helpful. At the beginning are sections called Introduction to the Bible (kind of an overview), How We Got the Bible, How to Study the Bible, a preface to the ESV explaining the philosophy and style that went into this transition, an explanation of the features, especially the cross references and footnotes. Before each of the Testaments are introductions, chronologies, overviews, etc., and even the intertestamental period gets a few pages. Each book is introduced with a few pages discussing authorship, date, background and setting, historical and theological themes, interpretive challenges, and an outline. I found this especially very helpful to read before beginning a particular book. Throughout the book are applicable maps, charts, and diagrams and footnotes on most of the verses. At the end are appendices on The Character of Genuine Saving Faith, an Overview of Theology, a plan to read through the Bible in a year, an index to key Bible doctrines, Monies, Weights, and Measures, and a concordance.

The book is too bulky to carry to church, almost a little hard to handle while sitting on the couch, where I usually do my Bible reading. The print in the notes especially is very small, but if it was any larger, more pages and therefore more bulk would be required. So the size of both the print and the book itself are probably the best compromise.

I did not know much about MacArthur before reading this. I had found him to be a little terse in what things of his I had read, and that seems to come through here, but then again, that’s the nature of the verse-by-verse notes. Sometimes something I had a question about wasn’t addressed, or at least not to the extent I’d like, but I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a commentary, and the notes needed to be limited to a degree.

At first it was a little distracting to read a verse and then read the corresponding notes, but after a while it didn’t seem to be. It did help to reread or at least skim through the chapter again after reading it verse then note then verse, to put it all together.

I have multitudes of places marked, much more than I can share here, but here are a couple:

It helped to realize that Chronicles was not just a repeat of Kings, but was written when the Jews were returning to Israel after 70 years of exile to a land far different from their “glory years” of David and Solomon.

The chronicler’s selective genealogy and history of Israel…was intended to remind the Jews of God’s promises and intentions about: 1) the land; 2) the nation; 3) the Davidic king; 4) the Levitical priests; 5) the temple; and 6) true worship, none of which had been abrogated because of the Babylonian captivity. All of this was to remind them of their spiritual heritage during the difficult times they faced, and to encourage them to be faithful to God (p. 557).

Of Exodus 20:5-6, which speaks of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,” MacArthur says:

Moses had made it clear that children were not punished for the sins of their parents (Deut. 24:16; see Ezek. 18:19-32), but children would feel the impact of breaches of God’s law by their parents’ generation as a natural consequence of its disobedience, its hatred of God. Children reared in such an environment would imbibe and then practice similar idolatry, thus themselves expressing hateful disobedience. The difference in consequence served as both a warning and a motivation. The effect of a disobedient generation was to plant wickedness so deeply that it took several generations to reverse (p. 123).

Re the imprecatory prayers in the psalms: “As God’s mediatorial representative on earth, David prayed for judgement on his enemies, since these enemies were not only hurting him, but were primarily hurting God’s people. Ultimately, they challenged the King of kings, the God of Israel” (p. 734).

There were a few places I disagree with him, some minor, such as whether David was wrong to mourn Absalom in the way he did (MacArthur thought it was “melancholy,” “weak, ” and “unwarranted zeal for such a worthless son”; I thought it was perfectly natural to deeply grieve not only his loss of life but his state at the end of it). Some differences were major, particularity a Calvinistic bent which I had not known he possessed.

Calvinism is another issue too large for one blog post. I agree with parts of it but seriously disagree with other parts. But for just one example, one of the ares where I most disagree with it is with the “I” in the TULIP” acronym: Irresistible Grace, the idea that if God calls you to salvation, you can’t say no. One passage that particularly counteracts that idea, in my opinion, is where Jesus laments, ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34). That sounds pretty much like they resisted His overtures and attempts to gather them to Himself. Here’s what MacArthur says of the Matthew passage:

God is utterly sovereign and therefore fully capable of bringing to pass whatever he desires (cf. Isa.46:10)–including the salvation of whomever he chooses (Eph. 1:4-5). Yet, he sometimes expresses a wish for that which he does not sovereignly bring to pass (cf. Gen. 6:6; Deut. 5:29; Ps. 81:13; Isa. 48:18). Such expressions in no way suggest a limitation on the sovereignty of God or imply any actual change in him (Num. 23:19). But these statements do reveal essential aspects of the divine character: he is full of compassion, sincerely good to all,  desirous of good, not evil–and therefore not delighting in the destruction of the wicked… (p. 1403).

This passage makes sense to me if Christ is lamenting that people turned away from His attempts to draw them, because He knows what it will ultimately mean for them (if you turn away from Him, there is nowhere else to go. If you won’t accept his grace, there’s nothing left but wrath). But it doesn’t make sense if He is saying, “I didn’t elect you, and you don’t have any chance, but I feel bad about that.”

The Bible itself is inspired by God: no man’s notes and commentaries are. But someone else’s intense study of the Word of God can be greatly beneficial to us in our own study, and, though I disagreed with MacArthur in a few places here and there, I was greatly helped by the majority of his notes.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday,
Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books,
Carole’s Books You Loved)

 

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Book Review: How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth

In How to Read the BibleHow to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart attempt to help the reader understand and interpret the Bible with particular consideration of the genre of each book. They explain that the “Its” of the title is deliberate, rather than “It Is,” saying, “‘Its’ is a deliberate wordplay that works only when it appears without the apostrophe; and in the end our own emphasis lies with this possessive. Scripture is God’s Word, and we want people to read it because of its great value to them. And if they do it ‘for all it’s worth,’ hopefully they will also find its worth.”

The first chapter covers general principles for reading and understanding the Bible: exegesis, “the careful, systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning,” which involves learning “to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text,” questions of context (historical and literary) and content; interpretation, and hermeneutics, learning “to hear that same meaning in the variety of new or different contexts of our own day.” They insist, several times over, that we must understand what the text meant to the original readers before attempting to apply it to ourselves.

The concern of the scholar is primarily with what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with what it means. The believing scholar insists that we must have both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every imaginable kind of error—because it lacks controls. Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure of that most important of all hermeneutical skills—common sense.

Whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to think that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.

Let it be said at the outset—and repeated throughout—that the aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before. Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “outclever” the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task. The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text.”

Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture.

The second chapter deals with the different translations of the Bible. You may not agree with the one they feel is best (I later learned one of them was on the translation committee for it), but this chapter will help you appreciate the difficulties involved in translating and the reasons there are so many translations, but will also reassure you that we have a few today that are especially accurate and trustworthy. There are a number of considerations, but the main differences in translations are those which use formal equivalence, “the attempt to keep as close to the ‘form’ of the Hebrew or Greek, both words and grammar, as can be conveniently put into understandable English”; functional equivalence, “the attempt to keep the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek but to put their words and idioms into what would be the normal way of saying the same thing in English” at the time of the translation, and free translation (or paraphrase), which is more concerned about translating the ideas rather than the “exact words of the original.”

The problem with a “free” translation, on the other hand, especially for study purposes, is that the translator updates the original author too much…On the one hand, these renditions often have especially fresh and vivid ways of expressing some old truths and have thus each served to stimulate contemporary Christians to take a fresh look at their Bibles. On the other hand, such a “translation” often comes very close to being a commentary, but without other options made available to the reader. Therefore, as stimulating as these can sometimes be, they are never intended to be a person’s only Bible; and the reader needs constantly to check particularly eye-catching moments against a true translation or a commentary to make sure that not too much freedom has been taken.

The rest of the book’s chapters discuss the different genres of literature in the Bible: epistles, narratives, Acts, the gospels, parables, the law, the prophets, the psalms, wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon), and Revelation.  They apply the principles they discussed in Chapter 1 to each and also discuss their forms and the particular difficulties or concerns in reading and interpreting each one. For instance, concerning the epistles, the authors  “offer the following guidelines, therefore, for distinguishing between items that are culturally relative on the one hand and those that transcend their original setting on the other hand and are thus normative for all Christians of all times.” Of the OT narratives, they say:

Our concern in this chapter is to guide you toward a good understanding of how Hebrew narrative “works,” so that you may read your Bibles more knowledgeably and with greater appreciation for God’s story. Unfortunately, failure to understand both the reason for and the character of Hebrew narrative has caused many Christians in the past to read the Old Testament story very poorly. If you are a Christian, the Old Testament is your spiritual history. The promises and calling of God to Israel are your historical promises and calling. Yet, in our experience, people force incorrect interpretations and applications on narrative portions of the Bible as much as or more than they do on any other parts. The intended value and meaning are replaced with ideas read into rather than out of the text.

Old Testament narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings…[and] are not intended to teach moral lessons. The purpose of the various individual narratives is to tell what God did in the history of Israel…

However, even though [they] do not teach directly, they often illustrate what is taught explicitly and categorically everywhere.

One crucial thing to keep in mind as you read any Hebrew narrative is the presence of God in the narrative. In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story.

Even though the chapters on the different genres make up the bulk of the book and I have multitudes of places marked in them, for the sake of space and time I’ll stop there.

They have an appendix for “The Evaluation and Use of Commentaries” and their recommendations for good ones.

Overall, though I would not agree with every little point, I found the book very helpful. Though there is value in reading it through as a whole, I think there would be more value in reading the chapter on a particular genre just before reading that genre, and I may try to do that, or at least refresh myself on some of the applicable points, on starting a new genre in my own reading.

The authors are scholars who try very hard to make their points readable and understandable to the average layperson, and they mostly succeed. I don’t know if this is a book I would give to a brand new Christian right off the bat, though. It might be overwhelming, like trying to get a sip from a fire hydrant. But maybe not. Maybe it would help people get off on the right foot.

One frustration was that the authors often referred to what they called “How to 2” for further reading or for information they evidently didn’t want to reprint here. Since this is a third edition of the book, I thought they were referencing the second edition, and wondered why they didn’t just include that information here. But as I reread the first part, “How to 2” is referring to a different book of theirs, How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

I got this book on a Kindle sale because I had seen it referred to often, and it happened to be the third edition, which apparently is no longer available in the Kindle format. There is now a fourth edition, though, available both for print and ebook form.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Principles For Interpreting the Bible

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Have you ever wondered why two people can take the same Bible passage and come up with different meanings for it? Have you ever heard anyone say, “Oh, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say,” especially when you’re trying to bring spiritual truth to bear on a situation? It’s true that people wrest Scripture to make is say something it wasn’t meant to say. Whole false religions have been created by doing just that. How can we guard against doing that ourselves? By applying good principles of interpretation, called hermeneutics.

 “Biblical hermeneutics is all about finding the correct interpretation of the inspired text. The purpose of biblical hermeneutics is to protect us from misapplying Scripture or allowing bias to color our understanding of truth.” (http://www.gotquestions.org/Biblical-hermeneutics.html).

Some of you might think something like, “I will never be a preacher; I’m not even a teacher—so what does it matter how I interpret Scripture?”

It matters, first of all, because we’re instructed to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15). Even though that verse was written as instruction to a preacher, it’s also God’s inspired Word to us. Really, is there anyone who shouldn’t rightly divide the Word or study it aright? We want to understand what God said to us and not be led stray by misunderstanding His Word.

It matters, secondly, because each of us has a sphere of influence. Whether we ever stand in front of a classroom or audience or not, we come across people in our daily walk, we have relatives, friends, neighbors. What we read and how we read Scripture forms our understanding of spiritual matters (and our spiritual understanding of practical matters) and will influence our views, which in turn will affect our conversations and character and witness and influence.

Besides paying attention to the words themselves and how they are put together grammatically, like you would do with any reading, here are a few principles for rightly interpreting Scripture:

  • Pray. In Psalm 119:18, the psalmist prayed, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” Several times he asked for God to give him understanding or teach him. In How to Master the English Bible, James Gray said, “The most important rule is the last. Read it prayerfully. Let not the triteness of the observation belittle it, or all is lost. The point is insisted on because, since the Bible is a supernatural book, it can be studied or mastered only by supernatural aid. … Who is so well able to illuminate the pages of a given book as the author who composed it?” (I don’t know anything about the author or book than this, but thought the last two lines especially good.
  • Take the passage literally unless it’s obviously not meant to be literal. Someone once said about understanding the Bible, “When common sense makes good sense, seek no other sense.” There are some who “spiritualize” much of the OT, saying that the creation account, among other things, is just a myth and there was no real historical Adam. But the Bible presents creation and OT history as literal events in the lives of real, literal people. In Genesis 1, there is no reason to interpret the days of creation as anything other than 24-hour days. But when Jesus speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, we know He is speaking figuratively, partly because of the reaction of the disciples—or lack of reaction they would have had if they thought he was speaking literally.
  • Context, context, context. Taking a verse or passage out of context is one of the biggest violators of its meaning. Just one example: You can find nice plaques or Pinterest quotes that take Exodus 14:13-14 (“And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace”) and condense it down to a pithy saying like, “Be still! Your God will fight for you.” But in the very next verse, God says, “Wherefore criest thou unto me?” And then He tells them what to do. Later, though there were times God supernaturally gave Israel the victory, most of the time they had to take up swords, spears, and shields, and fight. They still couldn’t win unless they were depending on Him rather than their own strength, but they trusted God to work through them.

Sometimes even good people will defend a stand or draw a good principle from a passage that isn’t teaching that principle. If the person you’re speaking with then does go back to look up the passage mentioned, your whole position is weakened if the context doesn’t support it. If the principle arises from the context, however, it is all the stronger and more enriching.

  • Don’t imprint your thoughts onto the text, but let the text reveal its meaning. A former pastor used to say that when he first started preaching, as he studied the passage he was going to preach on, he would ask himself, “What can I say about this passage?” After some time he realized that was the wrong question. The right one was, “What does this passage say?” For example, for years I heard that the people’s surprise at Peter’s release at the prayer meeting in Acts 12 was evidence that they weren’t praying in faith. But Dr. Layton Talbert, in his book Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God, brings up a different viewpoint. We don’t know that they were praying for Peter’s deliverance from prison. He points out that the text doesn’t say. James was killed by Herod earlier in the chapter: since he was not delivered they may not have expected Peter to be, either. “The only precedent we have for the church’s prayer under similar circumstances is in Acts 4:23-30. There, in the face of recent imprisonment, persecution, and renewed threats, the church made only one request. And it wasn’t for deliverance from prison or persecution; it was for boldness in the face of both (4:29)” (p. 203).
  • Compare Scripture with Scripture. The Bible is the best commentary on itself. One of the most important reasons for reading it through is to keep balanced and to keep the “big picture” in mind. A lot of theological error comes from emphasizing one part of a truth and neglecting or deemphasizing of the rest of it. Sometimes seemingly contradictory passages balance one another out or present different sides of the same truth. For instance, Proverbs 26:4-5 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” Those sound like two different instructions, but there is a time to answer and a time it would be unwise to answer, and we need God’s wisdom to discern when and how.
  • Consider the genre. Though all the Bible is inspired and true, we would read Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Romans, and Revelation all a bit differently, taking into account the different kinds of literature each is as we seek to understand them.
  • Consider the historical setting or culture of the passage. Understand that OT Israel was under a theocracy and was given specific promises (like the promise of a particular piece of land) and were under certain restrictions that New Testament believers are not (Acts 15:1-31). Even though some situations discussed in the Bible, even in the NT, are not ones we have to deal with today (like eating meat offered to idols), it’s still important to read them and discern the principles involved.
  • Note the difference in passages of direct instruction and passages of example. I once heard a message that used Abraham’s seeking out a bride for his Isaac as a springboard for telling parents how to find spouses for their children. While there are good principles to glean (like seeking a godly spouse, praying, seeking God’s guidance, etc.), it doesn’t mean that since Abraham found a wife for Isaac, parents today need to find spouses for their children. That was the culture then (see #7), but nowhere in the Bible are parents instructed to find spouses for their children in this way.
  • Note what is said to whom, determine what it meant then, and then determine how it applies to us today. For instance, as a younger Christian I wrestled with whether what Jesus said to the “rich young ruler” in Matthew 19:16-26 about selling his possessions and giving to the poor was something every Christian should do. But then I realized no on else wads told to do that. Though the Bible has a lot of instruction about our possessions (“compare Scripture with Scripture”), that particular admonition was to convict that particular man about his core problem.
  • Don’t “surface” read. Take time to read carefully and meditate on the passage. Biblical meditation isn’t an emptying of your mind, but rather thinking over and over a passage and “chewing” on it.

There is much more that could be said. In fact, every time I come back to this post I think of something else to add. Whole books have been written about this, so I can’t possibly cover every aspect in one blog post. But this gives us plenty to ponder.

Even with these principles in mind, sometimes good people can differ in their interpretations. There are some mysteries that we won’t be able to resolve until we get to heaven. We need to pray, study it out for ourselves, and consult commentaries of those who have had more time and tools to study. Where the Bible speaks clearly, we need to stand firm. But in those areas that are less clear but aren’t a matter of heresy, we need to give grace to those who might not see it exactly like we do.

I’ve wondered through the years why God did not spell everything out so there could be no mistaking the meaning or application of it. Perhaps one reason is to test our own hearts, to encourage our study, our dependence on Him, and grace toward each other.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Mondays, Literary Musing Mondays, Works For Me Wednesday, Woman Word Filled Wednesday, Thought-Provoking Thursday)

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