Much has been written about this, but essentially I
believe that prayerful Bible reading of itself will open up the meaning
to us. The following are just a few practical hints how to interpret
- Make notes in your Bible. Don't worry about using
fancy colours or only writing when you have the right kind of pen or
pencil. The actual process of note taking is what is important. Look at
a man's Bible, and it will probably tell you something about his
attitude to God's word. Our Bible becomes a kind of personal document
of our faith, a statement of our relationship between us and our God.
Always read or listen to the word with a pen or pencil in hand; set out
to be a Bible student, not just someone who goes through the motion of
daily Bible reading or attending a Bible study in a ritualistic sense.
God speaks to us in a personal way through His word, He will open our
eyes to see things there in response to our prayers, and thereby He
will personally guide us in our walk to His Kingdom. This is why I
recommend marking your Bible for yourself, in your own way (and for
this reason alone I can't very strongly recommend the systems of
organized Bible marking which are available). The Kings of Israel
(types of us) were to copy out the Law for themselves, and read that
copy all their lives (Dt. 17:18,19). That book was a statement of
the covenant relationship between them and their God; and it seems to
me there was good psychological reason to insist that they made their
own personal copy of it, and read from it for themselves.
- Harry Whittaker coined the term 'Bible television';
and it is indeed a help in how to interpret the Bible. The idea is that
we imagine that the scene we have read is being presented on
television; we try to re-live the scene and see it from a birds-eye
perspective. This often enlarges our appreciation of the narrative, and
livens up our Bible reading. For example, play Bible television with
Exodus 7; the magicians of Egypt tried to replicate the miracles of
Moses, and apparently succeeded first of all. But when you imagine it,
the whole thing must have been almost comical. For example, Moses made
all the water in Egypt into blood, and then, after this, while all the
water was blood, the magicians claimed to do the same (Ex. 7:22). We
can imagine them running round, desperately looking for water which
hadn't turned to blood, perhaps dyeing some of it white, and then
turning it red and saying 'There you are, my Lord, we can do
just the same, there's nothing this Moses can do which we can't'.
We are left to imagine Pharaoh's courtiers almost smiling, knowing that
Moses' God was no match for their religious nonsenses (cp. Ex. 10:7;
11:3). Dt. 7:19 even has God addressing those who had not been present
at the Red Sea and who hadn't seen the plagues on Egypt as if they had
personally been there. He speaks of these things "which thine eyes
saw". The people were to so feel themselves into God's word, into
Biblical history, into their membership in the people of God, that it
was as if they had seen these things with their own eyes. And in the
context, God uses this as the basis to appeal for their trust that He
will likewise give them the victory over the Egyptians and crises in their
- Be aware that there are some things in Scripture
which are recorded in such a way as to promote meditation, and
therefore they will always be ambiguous in terms of the actual
interpretation which is sustainable. We can't always say "
This word means X, this phrase means Y, therefore this verse means
interpretation Z; and if you don't agree with that, you don't really
accept the Bible" . Because it is possible to say that about the
interpretation of basic doctrine doesn't mean that we can adopt this
attitude to the interpretation of every Bible passage. The record of
the crucifixion is a good example of this. Or consider how it is
recorded that some of those healed by the Lord didn't
afterwards do what He said: one preached to his whole city rather than
to his family (Lk. 8:39); another didn't obey the Lord's plea to not
tell anyone else (Mk. 1:45). How are we to read these responses? Rank
disobedience? Misguided zeal? Zeal in doing over and above what they
were asked? You may have your ideas, and it is right that we should
meditate upon these things and discuss them. But I suggest that
ultimately they are left 'hanging' for the very purpose of promoting
meditation and personal application, rather than being statements which
shout for an obvious interpretation, like an equation 'A + 2 = 5, so
what is A?'. Latter day prophecies are, it seems to me (although not to
all brethren!) in the same category, of statements and types which
cannot have an exact interpretation dogmatically attached to
them (although we may grasp the general picture), but rather are
presented to us to promote meditation. Any who have tried to construct
a sequence of events for the last days will have been forced to this
- Look up the references in your margin. Generally,
these are a reflection of good Biblical scholarship.
- Use a concordance to guide you to other places where
a theme or personality occurs. But avoid one temptation: don't place
too much stress on the meanings of Hebrew and Greek words, unless you
absolutely have to. There is a type of Bible study which is simply a
list of alternative translations, placing great importance on the root
meanings of words (often questionably derived by Gesenius). I am wary
of expositions which depend on twisting the meaning of the original. We
don't know those languages, and the lexicon is a crude way of analyzing
them. Under inspiration (mind), the New Testament writers did
construct expositions which hinged around the meaning or alternative
meaning of a Hebrew word. But this doesn't mean that we are wise to
seek to do this as our main method of Bible study. The best expositions
are those which rest on a clear, evident connection, either
linguistically or semantically, with other parts of Scripture. Such
links are evident in any translation, in any language. Most generations
of the body of Christ haven't been able to read, yet alone have access
to the concordances and lexicons which we have. These things enhance
our exposition, but they are only icing on the cake. Davidson rightly
observes: “Usage is the only safe guide; the concordance is
always a safer guide than the lexicon” (1). Online concordances
and various translations are all widely available on the internet as
freeware- e-sword would be a good example. Each word in Scripture is
given a number. You can then see what that word strictly means in the
Hebrew or Greek by looking up that number. Most usefully, you can run
searches for where such words occur together- e.g. if you search for "
lamb" and " God" , you will find all references to the idea of God's
lamb, with all the meaning it has for Bible students eagerly searching
for information about the Lord Jesus as that lamb. And so beware of
what has been called the ‘root fallacy’. Easy access to
Hebrew lexicons lead many Bible students to look up a word, then look
at it’s root, and decide that the root is therefore the meaning-
especially if it fits in to their idea of what the passage under study
should mean! But this isn’t a true way of analyzing language.
Words with different meanings can have the same root. Take the words
‘unity’ and ‘uniformity’. Sadly, these two
words are confused all too often in Christian churches- e.g., ‘To
create unity in the church, everyone must come to the breaking of bread
meeting uniformly dressed, all wearing a certain kind of
clothing’. No, ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity’
are two quite different things; and yet they come from the same root
word, ‘uno’. The wider problems of the ‘root
fallacy’ have been discussed at great length elsewhere (2). But
one noteworthy issue is that the root meaning fallacy arises from the
false assumption that a word has a "proper meaning", which can be
reached by tracing it to its source. But seeing that words change their
meaning, the 'root' of a word isn't really much of a guide to its
meaning. Take the English word 'nice', i.e. pleasant. In the eighteenth
century this word meant 'precise' rather than 'pleasant'; and it
actually derives from the Latin nescius, meaning 'ignorant'.
It's obviously wrong to read the word 'nice' in a contemporary book and
think that the word therefore means 'precise', or, even more
accurately, 'ignorant'. Context and usage is obviously the key. I'm
constantly amazed at how respectable lexicons like Liddell & Scott
use the term "prop.", i.e. 'proper meaning', with the evident
understanding that the earliest use of a word is somehow its real,
'proper' meaning. This is an utter fallacy. The meaning of the names of
Jacob's children are parade examples. Reuben means 'behold a son', but
the inspired narrator suggests a meaning of 'afflication' because the
consonants with that word are vaguely similar to 'Reuben' (Gen.
problem with the
use of lexicons and concordances is that too much meaning can be
one word, whereas language and communication doesn’t always
isolating one word and analyzing its meaning. Take the Hebrew
v’bohu, “formless and empty” in early Genesis.
The very rhyme of the two Hebrew
words suggests we are to read them as a single expression. In English
phrases like “vim and vigour” and “rough and
tumble”, but to get to the meaning
of the phrase we will not be helped too much by isolating each word and
analyzing it, dissecting it for meaning as a standalone word. We must
phrase as a whole.
- Any serious study of a Bible passage requires us to
look at it in different translations and make some effort to understand
the real meaning of the original- for sometimes the sense of a passage
can completely change, depending on translation (especially in Job).
Thus in the AV of 2 Cor. 10:7, Paul is made to ask a question: " Do ye
look on things after the outward appearance?" . In the RV, this becomes
an affirmation: " Ye look at the things that are before your face" .
But in other versions, it becomes a blunt demand from Paul that the
Corinthians should open their eyes to the true facts: " Look at things
which stare you in the face!" (J.B. Phillips).
- Watch out for quotations and allusions within
Scripture; there are connections not only between New and Old
Testaments, but also (e.g.) between Paul's letters; Peter alludes to
Paul's writings, Paul frequently alludes to the words of John the
Baptist; Jeremiah often refers to Job's words and experiences. Note the
context of the source quotation, because this often sheds light on the
passage in which it is quoted. Be aware that many NT passages mix a
number of OT passages in one 'quotation'; e.g. " The deliverer will
come from Zion" (Rom. 11:26) is a conflated quotation of Ps. 14:7; 53:6
and Is. 59:20. And Heb. 13:5 combines quotes from Gen. 28:15; Josh. 1:5
and Dt. 31:16. Heb. 13:5 doesn’t quote any of them exactly, but
mixes them together.
- When you look up one of these quotations, note the
context. Often (but not always) when the New Testament quotes the Old,
there is something in the context which is relevant, and which explains
why the NT writer quoted the verse he did. Beware of the temptation to
just use Bible passages on a surface level; i.e., because the words as
they stand in your translation seem to suit what you want to prove,
don't just use them, but check if the context fits. It has been truly
observed that the NT writers "quoted not texts but contexts" ; and
therefore we should be wary of using Bible verses just as
- But although context is indeed important, it isn't always
so. The New Testament writers so often quote the
Old Testament without (apparently) attention to the context
of the words they are quoting. And this is indeed the approach of the
Rabbis, who tend to expound each Bible verse as a separate entity. But
all the same, in seeking to understand a verse, attention should be
paid to the context. Because a word or phrase means something in one
context doesn't mean it always means this in any context.
Thus " leaven" can be a symbol of both the Gospel and also sin. And the
eagle is a symbol of several quite different enemies of Israel, as well
as of God Himself. Another simple example is in Dt. 3:20; the land "
beyond Jordan" refers to land on the West of the river; but in Josh.
9:10 the same phrase refers to land on the East. That same phrase "
beyond Jordan" means something different in different contexts. We
can't always assume, therefore, that the same phrase must
refer to the same thing wherever it occurs. Read the Gospels in the
context of other Gospels; read the prophets in the context of the
historical records; read the NT epistles in the context of Acts. Again,
a quick example: Paul said that he was going to Jerusalem, " Saying,
After I have been there, I must also see Rome" (Acts 19:21). But
actually he had written to the Romans that he would drop in to see them
on his way to Spain (Rom. 15;23). Spain was his real ambition, to
preach the Gospel in " the regions beyond" (2 Cor. 10:16 and context)-
not Rome. But Acts 19:21 gives the impression that Rome was the end of
- But be aware that when it comes to prophecy,
in the sense of foretelling future events, the New Testament sometimes
seems to quote the Old Testament without attention to the
context- at least, so far as human Bible scholarship can discern. The
early chapters of Matthew contain at least three examples of
quotations whose context just cannot fit the application given: Mt.
2:14,15 cp. Hos. 11:1; Mt. 2:17,18 cp. Jer. 31:15; Mt. 1:23 cp. Is.
7:14. Much Christian material about Israel shows how they have returned
to the land, rebuilt the ruined cities, made the desert blossom etc.,
as fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies in Jeremiah etc. The context
of these prophecies often doesn’t fit a return to the land by
Jews in the 20th century; but on the other hand, the correspondence
between these prophecies and recent history is so remarkable that it
can’t be just coincidence. So again we are led to conclude that a
few words here and there within a prophecy can sometimes have a
fulfilment outside that which the context seems to require.
- If you have (or can make) time, try to make a
concentrated study of a Bible book. James is a good one to begin with.
Note down what the verses are actually telling you in
- Compare the parallel records when studying the
Gospels. Be aware that often the records are summarized and highly
condensed. Thus sometimes what is recorded as being actually said may
be only a summary of the real words (consider what the Canaanite woman
actually said: Mt. 15:27 cp. Mk. 7:28). Some wonderful things come out
of comparing the records. Thus the Luke record has the Lord saying that
two sparrows are sold for one farthing; Mark records that He said that
five sparrows were sold for two farthings. So what did the Lord really
say? I suggest something like this: 'As you know, two sparrows are sold
for one farthing, they cost half a farthing each; but often, as you
know, five sparrows are sold for two farthings,
they'll throw one extra in for free, they're worth so little'.
- Every word of God is inspired. Be aware of the huge
impact of brief, basic statements. Whoever isn't for me is against me.
You can't serve two masters. Love the Lord God with all your heart.
These basic statements should form our whole attitude to the world, to
our life decisions, to our very essential being. Whilst basic doctrine
is provable by many passages, don't be afraid of accepting something
from 'just' one passage that clearly speaks to you. And, in this
context, don't let anyone tell you that (e.g.) sisters shouldn't wear
head coverings 'Because the Bible only says it once'. How many times
does God have to tell us something before we take Him and His words
- Be aware that the original writers didn't have
quotation marks or brackets (consider where Paul might have used them
in 1 Cor. 15:45-47!). For example, throughout Corinthians Paul is
quoting phrases from their allegations and questions, but it is not
always exactly apparent. Consider 2 Cor. 12:16. Perhaps using quotation
marks we could translate: " Nevertheless, " being crafty" , I " caught
you with guile" " . The New Testament so often seems to mix
interpretation with Old Testament quotation; here especially we need to
imagine the use of quotation marks. According to the Western text of
Acts 18:4, Paul " inserted the name of the Lord Jesus" at the
appropriate points in his public reading of the Old Testament
prophecies. This was after the pattern of some of the Jewish targums
(commentaries) on the prophets, which inserted the word " Messiah" at
appropriate points in Isaiah's prophecies of the suffering servant
(e.g. the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets).
- Often a parenthesis is used to develop a digression,
and then the writer returns to the main theme. Perceiving this is a key
to how to interpret the Bible. Consider these examples:
1) Gal. 3:9-14. Verses 10-13 are a parenthesis
concerning the curse of the Law. If read without the parenthesis, the
flow of thought goes straight on: " They which be of faith are blessed
with faithful Abraham (v.9)...that the blessing of Abraham might come
on the Gentiles" (v.14).
2) Sometimes the artificial chapter breaks (which
were added by man) break up the parenthesis. Is. 24:23 speaks of how "
the Lord of Hosts shall reign in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem" ; the
following first five verses of Is. 25 are a parenthesis; and then Is.
25:6 continues: " in this mountain...he will destroy..." . If we fail
to realize the parenthesis, and if we only started reading at chapter
25:1, we would be thinking: " Which mountain?" . But if we realize the
parenthesis, and if we disregard the chapter division, all is plain: "
...in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem (24:23)...in this mountain... (25:6)"
. Whilst I strongly recommend the use of Bible reading planners such as
the Bible Companion, this is one of the drawbacks of any
system of reading a chapter per day. Reading through a book, especially
in just two or three sittings, enables us to grasp the theme much
3) One of the most telling uses of parenthesis (and
the most misunderstood) is in the Olivet prophecy. We frequently
struggle to understand which verses apply to AD70 and which to the last
days. But if Mt. 24:8-22 are read as a parenthesis specifically
concerning the events of AD70, all becomes clear: the first seven
verses and Mt. 24:23 ff. refer to events of both the last days and
AD70. Try doing the same in Lk. 21. But I'll leave you to work through
this for yourself!
4) " We have also a more sure word of prophecy;
whereunto ye do well that ye take heed (as unto a light that shineth in
a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise) in your
hearts" (2 Pet. 1:19). We must take heed to the word in our hearts-
this is the idea, rather than any suggestion of a mystical coming of
Christ in our hearts.
5) " Now the sojourning of the children of Israel
(who dwelt in Egypt) was four hundred and thirty years" (Ex. 12:40).
This solves the chronological problem which this verse otherwise
- Not only are paragraph and chapter breaks sometimes
misleading, verse breaks can be too. Inserting punctuation into
translation of Hebrew and Greek texts is very difficult. Thus Eph.
1:4,5 in the AV reads: “...that we should be holy and without
blame before him in love: having predestinated us”. Shift the
colon and another emphasis is apparent: “...that we should be
holy and without blame before him: in love having predestinated
us”. When stuck with a ‘difficult’ verse (and they
all are in some ways!), don’t be afraid to try re-jigging the
punctuation a bit.
- Be aware that we are reading translations of the
Bible, and that even within the New Testament we have examples of
Hebrew words being translated into Greek. Yet hardly ever does a word
in one language have an absolutely exact equivalent in another. Take
the English word 'spirit'. French esprit and German geist
convey the meaning, but neither of those words has any overlap with the
idea of alcohol, which is a shade of meaning carried by the English
'spirit'. And yet neither the English, French nor German words for
'spirit' can really convey the ideas behind the Hebrew ruach,
which can mean spirit, breath and wind.
- Watch out for the use of figures of speech. How we
interpret the Bible accurately depends upon grasping these. Ellipsis
and metaphor are the most common. Ellipsis is where as it were a gap is
left in the sentence, and we have to fill in the intended sense. Thus:
" For as many as have sinned without law, shall perish also without [being
judged by] law" (Rom. 2:12). Often we need to read into the text
in a more lengthy ellipsis - especially the idea of "not so much this,
as that". Thus "Christ sent me not [so much as] to baptize,
but to preach the Gospel" (1 Cor. 1:17). Paul of course did
baptize people, as he goes on to say in that very context (1 Cor.
1:14). Or take Jer. 7:22,23: "I spake not unto your fathers, nor
commanded them... concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: but this
thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God".
God did command sacrifices; but He not so much
commanded them as required Israel's spirit of obedience and
acceptance of Him.
- The Spirit often uses hyperbole, i.e. exaggerated
language to make a point. Thus the shepherd left the 99 to seek the
one; but the Lord never leaves us. The point is that His concern for
the lost is so great. Or consider Jer. 7:22,23: " I spake not
unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them
out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: but
this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice..." . God did
command them to offer sacrifices. But compared to His overwhelming
desire for them to love His word rather than feel obligated by
specific, concrete commands, effectively He didn't command
them concerning sacrifices. Another example would be when Ez. 16:51,52
says that the sin of Jerusalem justified Samaria’s sin. Sin
doesn’t justify sin; it’s a shocking, arresting hyperbole.
- Sometimes, what appears to be hyperbole may in fact
be irony. Thus when Paul says that the least respected member should
settle disputes, he was not necessarily saying that this in fact was
what he was advocating (the NT teaching about eldership would
contradict this); he was surely using irony. Likewise in his teaching
about head coverings, Paul is surely using irony: 'If you throw away
your head covering, you may as well throw away your hair!' is how I
read 1 Cor. 11:5. " ...Seeing ye yourselves are wise" is one of several
more evident uses of irony in Corinthians.
- Appreciate that the Bible uses this device of irony
quite extensively. Realizing the use of irony and appreciating the
point behind it is directly related to our familiarity with Scripture.
The more we love it and are truly familiar with it, the more we will
grasp the use of irony. This is one example of how God has written the
Bible to progressively open itself up to those who truly love it. The
events associated with the trial and death of the Lord Jesus seem to be
more densely packed with irony than anywhere else. This may be because
the Lord's perception of the irony was a strength to Him. Thus, and
this is only one simply example, He would have seen the irony of
sinners crowning Him. He knew that one day they really would, in their
- Try to see the historical events which occurred to
Israel as relevant to you personally. They were "types of us". Note how
1 Cor. 10:1 speaks of "our fathers"- even when Paul is writing
to Gentiles. He intended them to see in the Jewish fathers a type of
themselves. Israel's keeping of the Passover implied that each
subsequent Israelite had personally been redeemed that night. All down
the years, they were to treat the stranger fairly: " for ye know the
heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt"
(Ex. 23:9). The body of believers, the body of Christ, is not only
world-wide geographically at this point in time; it stretches back over
time as well as distance, to include all those who have truly believed.
This is why David found such inspiration from the history of Israel in
his own crises (e.g. Ps. 77).
- Try to memorize Scripture, run through verses as you
go about life, play tapes of Bible studies or Bible reading in the
background (instead of the mindless radio). Much of Scripture was
probably memorized by various contemporary believers. " This book of
the law shall not depart out of thy mouth" (Josh. 1:8) presumably means
that Joshua was commanded to keep reciting it to himself in daily life,
so that he would be obedient to it. The way Jeremiah consciously and
unconsciously quotes and alludes to Job would suggest that he had
memorized that book. And many of the Psalms are written in such a way
(in Hebrew) as to be easily memorized. David memorized God's law and
meditated upon it (hardly the easiest part of Scripture to memorize, at
least to Western eyes; Ps. 119:16). He recited it to himself in the
- We need to try to come to Scripture with what's been
called "a second naivety", approaching passages as if for the first
time. Rather like the idea of a 'born again virgin', it's not literally
possible; but if we are to become children before God, then it's
something we can surely achieve in spirit.
- Watch out for the danger of over interpretation.
George Orwell, better known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984,
was a literary critic of great perception. He observed that all sorts
of literature, "from Dickens to seaside postcards", can be analyzed in
order to yield information and conclusions which it was never intended
to provide (3). The Bible is more than literature, as it's inspired by
God; but it is also literature, and in this sense it is just as prone
to this kind of mistreatment as any other literature. And because human
beings so want God to as it were be on their side, there's no book like
it which has been so forced into giving support for human ideas. We
have to be careful we don't do the same. We must be led to truth by the
Bible, and not over interpret it. And I would suggest, as a rule of
thumb, that over-interpretation occurs when someone comes to the Bible
seeking support for their preconceived ideas.
Prov. 2:4,5 exhorts us to seek for wisdom as men seek
for wealth in secular life. And yet how many blame their lack of Bible
study on having no time, due to the pursuit of wealth! Long hours,
demanding jobs that demand our very soul, the worries that come with
wealth... these are the very things which sap our ability to seek the
wisdom of God's word. Yet it is only if we seek for that wisdom above
those things, with the same constant insistency with which the
worldling seeks wealth, that "then shalt thou understand...".
Understanding of God's word doesn't therefore come from academic
application, from sitting down once in the week to do some quick Bible
study... it comes above all from an attitude. That desire to know God
is what will lead us to correct understanding. Time and again we are
taught that it is our attitude to God's word which is so crucial. The
parable of the sower can be interpreted as fulfilling every time we
hear the word sown in us. Thus some seed is "choked with cares" (Lk.
8:14)- exactly the same words used about Martha being "cumbered" with
her domestic duties so that she didn't hear the Lord's word at that
time (Lk. 10:40). We bring various attitudes of mind- stony, receptive,
cumbered etc.- to the word each time we hear it. And it is our attitude
to it which determines our response to it.
Bible study is vital for every believer. How to
interpret the Bible is indeed an essential skill to grasp. God is His
word. Our attitude to His word is our attitude to Him. If we love Him,
we will love His word. We will meditate upon it, we will catch the
spirit of the faithful Israelite, who wrote the word upon his
doorposts, talked about it over his meals... Yet we must live in this
world. We can't have our nose in a Bible all day (although we could all
snatch a verse or so for meditation during the daily round). I can only
suggest the 'umbrella' answer: If we know our mother has cancer and
will receive the outcome of tests in a week; if we are in love; somehow
we will do our daily tasks, but with a sense of something else hanging
over us, permeating the atmosphere in which we live. And so it can be
with God's word. One can sense how much Paul loved the word,
and how much he had meditated upon it. Thus he speaks of how " Esaias
is very bold, and saith...Esaias also crieth concerning
Israel..." (Rom. 9:27; 10:20). Paul had meditated deeply upon Isaiah's
words, even to the point of considering the tone of voice in which he
first spoke them. It was because the rulers of Israel “knew
not...the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath
day” (Acts 13:27) that they crucified the Lord. He speaks of
their “voices” rather than merely their words. They had
heard the words, but not felt and perceived that these were the actual
voices of men who being dead yet speak. They didn’t feel
the wonder of inspiration in their attitude to Bible study- even though
they would have devoutly upheld the position that the Bible texts were
inspired. And here we have a lesson for ourselves.
(1) A.B. Davidson, The Theology Of The Old
Testament (New York: Scribners, 1906).