Biblical interpretation, often referred to as Biblical hermeneutics, is carefully accomplished through a set of guidelines. When we read modern day literature, we supply a set of interpretive guidelines based on our own experience and culture. When we read a metaphor in a passage, we understand it as a metaphor when we recognize the component parts of the metaphor and how they relate to each other.
When we read that a person "struck out," we need to supply from context whether the person was beginning a journey, was brandishing a sword against an adversary, or was a failure at something as in a baseball "at bat" event. If we understand the cultural use of these three meanings, we should have no problem in understanding what we are reading; in fact, we usually think nothing of it and find the literary usage colorful.
However, if we were not familiar with baseball and that was the intended context, we would initially stumble at the first encounter of the phrase. If it were only used once in our literary piece, we would need to go outside that literature to find the meaning, or would need to become familiar with the culture enough to apply the meaning later on.
Now add to this setting the concept of an idiom. We could use a similar phrase and read that a person "struck it rich." Now some wording and verb tenses are similar, but the meaning is entirely different. Translating from one language to another adds another whole layer to the attempt to understand. Does a translator literally translate the words from one language to another, or does the translator attempt to understand the metaphor or idiom and translate the interpretation into the new language? Does the translator actually understand the metaphor or idiom in the original language so that it can properly be interpreted?
Add another level of complexity to Biblical translation. The writings of Holy Scripture came from different cultural periods. These include Egypt and wilderness settings, promised land settings, Assyrian / Babylonian captivity settings, post-exile settings, New Testament Palestine settings, Gentile European and Roman settings, and Hebrew European settings. Biblical literature written into and within these various settings will constitute a wide diversity of translation and interpretation requirements.
Different class backgrounds influence the literary style of the authors. Moses wrote as a Hebrew raised in Pharaoh's palace and also as one who tended sheep on the backside of the desert. Some literature is written by kings, such as David and Solomon. Nehemiah was a foreign king's cup bearer, while Peter was a fisherman. Matthew was a tax collector, Paul a Rabbi, and Luke a doctor. God as the Holy Spirit did not dictate what was to be written, except perhaps the content of some of the Law, but he superintended the content to be sure it accurately represented "God Speaking."
Some of the literature was written from the wilderness, while other literature was written from prison. Some parts of Scripture express Oriental expressions, such as Abraham and burial sites in Genesis 23 or ten virgins in Matthew 25. Some places reflect Egyptian terms, or Babylonian terms, or Gentile and Roman terms.
Styles of Literature
The Scriptures are also written in different literary forms including: poetry, prose, drama, narrative, prophecy, and songs. Scriptures are also written to different people: Matthew to the Jews, John to unsaved seekers, Luke to Gentiles, epistles to churches or specific people, Hebrews to Jewish Christians, and Romans to Gentile Christians.
The Bible deals with subjects other books do not even attempt. In Isaiah 55:8-9 God declares that "My thoughts are not your thoughts." In 2 Peter 3:14-18 He indicates that "these things are hard to understand." Throughout Scripture there is a weaving together of the natural and the supernatural. Because God is involved, supernatural will always be involved.
Preparation for Learning
God reveals to us in His own speaking to us that to properly understand and interpret Scripture, we must consider significant spiritual and mental preparation.
Some of the things God says to us to prepare for proper teachability include:
- John 3:7: "you must be born again"
- John 16:12-15: the Spirit discloses truth
- Psalm 119:18: "open my eyes"
- Hebrews 11:6: "without faith it is impossible to please God"
- I Corinthians 2:1-16: the things of God are spiritually appraised; the natural man does not accept them
- Psalm 25:9: God teaches the humble His ways
- 1 Kings 3:7-9: Solomon prays for understanding and a heart to discern
- James 1:5, 21: If you lack wisdom, ask of God and receive the Word in humility
- John 7:17: a person who wills to do His will
- 1 Peter 2:1-2: putting aside all other things
- James 1:22-25: being a doer of the Word
- Philippians 3:16: keep living by that same standard
- Psalm 119:11: treasure the Word in your heart
When God tells us that this is what you need to properly understand Him and what He has spoken to us, you can see why there are so many who get it wrong. They come to the Scriptures without proper preparation and go way with a muddled mind and an empty heart. As Hebrews 11:6 above indicates, faith is required for proper communication and understanding with God. God knows your inner spirit and knows whether there is faith in Him and in Jesus Christ to be found there. You cannot run faith in "test mode." It takes a full commitment. You can taxi in "test mode" on the runway for your whole life, but until you commit to the speed necessary, you will never get off the ground. You cannot experience a relationship with God in "test mode."
Once you have brought your life into proper relationship with Jesus Christ and you are communicating with God on His terms of faith, you can approach Scripture with a better understanding and more confident interpretation.
Use the example of Christ and how he quoted and applied the use of sacred Scriptures during his ministry. Also look at how other authors of the new writings quoted and applied the meaning of older writings. A proper interpretation must be applied to the original language to best formulate a proper translation to a new language. Let's look at these important principles of interpretation.