God speaks plainly to us, so use the most simple, direct and ordinary meaning of phrases and sentences. If the plain sense makes good sense, don't look for any other sense.
To interpret literally, we must give regard to the meaning of words.
How is it used in other places in the Bible? Examples might be Hope: Romans 8:24-25 -- it is in the future, we know it is coming, we wait patiently; Adoption: Galatians 4:5 -- a child who is heir, coming into full rights, we are given adoption as soon as we are saved; Mystery: Romans 16:25 -- something previously hidden but now revealed.
What was the writer's obvious meaning? Matthew 3:2 -- John the Baptist is fulfillment of Scripture; Isaiah 9:6-7 -- The promised Redeemer will be from the line of David.
What did the persons addressed understand the writer / speaker to mean? Luke 23:43: Jesus' answer to the thief on the cross; Luke 1:32: the annunciation to Mary, and her response in Luke 1:46-55.
To interpret literally, we must give regard to the form of the sentences.
The true meaning is not every sense that can be twisted from it. Let the meaning be controlled by the context of the rest of Scripture.
Every passage of Scripture should not be forced to bear every truth. Because the judicial nature of God is shown in a passage, that passage does not preclude nor should it be forced to show God's love, mercy and forgiveness.
To interpret literally, we must give regard to the peculiarities of the Hebrew idiom.
To clarify: an idiom is words grouped in such a way that they do not mean much translated, but are meaningful to that particular language alone. We use them all the time: how do you do? make friends with him; the more the merrier; how about it? what's up?
Some Common Hebrew idioms (and similar idioms expressed in Greek). You may find in some translations where the idiom already has been interpreted by the translators into a meaning more suitable for the receiving language. This will be noticeable between modern translations and those a century or more older.
Nouns are used for adjectives. The Hebrew language has comparatively few adjectives. Exodus 25:11: Crown of gold (a gold molding); Psalm 48:1: In the mountain of His Holiness (His holy mountain); Proverbs 24:5: Man of knowledge (intelligent); Isaiah 53:3: Man of sorrow (sorrowful); 1 Thessalonians 1:3: Work of faith (labor of love) (patience of hope); Ephesians 1:13: Holy Spirit of Promise (promised Holy Spirit)
Special use of the word "child" or "son." Often used of a person who has a peculiar quality. 1 Samuel 2:12: Sons of Belial (worthless); Luke 10:6: Son of peace (a peaceful man); Ephesians 5:6,8: Children of disobedience, children of light; Ephesians 2:3: children of wrath.
Peculiar ways of expressing comparison. Luke 14:26: "Hate his father, mother..." etc. Our love for Him should make our love for others seem as hate by comparison. Matthew 6:24: Two masters -- hate one, love the other; Romans 9:13: Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.
Peculiar expression of superlatives. Hebrew doesn't have a good way of expressing superlatives. They are typically expressed as one among many, such as: Servant of servants, Holy of holies, Lord of lords, King of kings.
Peculiar use of plural nouns. Genesis 8:4: "mountains of Ararat" -- one of the peaks or foothills in the mountain range defined by Ararat; compare Matthew 26:8 with John 12:4: plural and singular -- they all (or many) criticized the value of the ointment, but only Judas spoke.
Names of parents or ancestors often used for descendants as a whole. Israel and Jacob used to represent the nation, as in Genesis 49:7, Psalm 14:7, and Genesis 9:25. Malachi 1:2-4 shows the use of Jacob and Esau to represent the nation of descendants of the named people.
Sons, daughters, father, mother sometimes used for more distant descendants. Matthew 1:1 -- Son of David, Son of Abraham. Jeremiah 27:7; Matthew 22:42: Son of David; Daniel 5:18: Father; John 8:56: Father.
Brother is sometimes used for a collateral relative. Genesis 14:16 and Genesis 29:12.
Certain definite numbers are used to indicate indefinite numbers. Genesis 31:7 and Zechariah 8:23: 10 used sometimes for "several"; 2 Kings 8:9 and 1 Samuel 17:16: 40 used to mean "many"; Psalm 119:164 and Matthew 18:21: 7 or 70 used for a large number as perfection or completion.
To interpret literally, we must give regard to the usage of proper names in Scripture.
Different persons often have the same name. This is especially true of kings and rulers. Modern translations may have taken the opportunity to make these clearer, or supply footnotes of explanation.
Pharaoh: means "the great house"; Genesis 12: with Abraham; Genesis 41: with Joseph; Exodus 2:10: with Moses; Exodus 2:15: with Moses 40 years later; Exodus 3:10: with Moses 80 years later; 1 Kings 3:1: with Solomon.
Caesar: Luke 2:1 (Caesar Augustus); John 19:12: (Tiberius); Acts 11:28: (Claudius); Acts 25:11: (Nero).
Herod is used of 6 different rulers through the Gospels and Acts.
There are 27 different Zechariahs in Scripture, and duplicates and triplicates of other names.
The same person may sometimes be called by a different name.
Matthew and Levi; Thomas and Didimus; Timothy and Timotheus; Luke and Lukus; Peter and Simeon and Simon.
Different places sometimes have the same name.
Antioch in Syria and Pisidia (Acts 11 and Acts 14); Bethlehem: Ephrata (Micah 5:2; Genesis 35:19) and Zegulon (Joshua 19:15).
The same place is sometimes called by different names.
Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:18) or the Sea of Chinnereth (Numbers 34:11) or the Sea of Timerias (John 21:1) or Lake Gennesareth (Luke 5:1); Compare Israel and Samaria, Seir and Edom (Genesis 32), Mt. Sinai and Horeb (Deuteronomy 5:2).
Directions are often given according to physical geography.
Luke 2:4: went up from Galilee (Bethlehem is higher in altitude than Galilee); Luke 10:30: down from Jerusalem to Jericho (from a mountain to a valley).
These are but a few examples of the difficulties present in literal translations.