How can we discover the author’s meaning? Here are five steps that will help you in making accurate interpretations of books of the Bible.
The events described in the Bible took place thousands of years ago. This creates one obvious problem for understanding these events: we weren’t there! Therefore, we often lack important information regarding the background or context in which these events took place.
For example, almost every New Testament letter was written to address a particular problem or set of problems: the Galatians were seeking to be justified by law; the Corinthians needed answers to questions about marriage, spiritual gifts, meat offered to idols and so on; Timothy needed to know how to restore order to a church.
Unless we understand these problems or questions, the letters are like listening to one end of a telephone conversation. We hear what the author is saying, but we don’t know why he is saying it. The same is true when we read other books of the Bible. We know only half of the story!
One way to learn about the background or context of a psalm, prophetic book or New Testament letter is to look for clues within the book or passage itself. For example, in 1 John we read, “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray” (1 Jn 2:26). As we look elsewhere in the letter we discover that these false teachers had originally been part of the church: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us” (2:19). John calls them “antichrists” (2:18). There are many other statements, some explicit and some implicit, which give us additional details about the situation that John’s readers faced.
Once you have looked within the book or passage itself, it is helpful to consult a Bible dictionary or handbook. For example, under the listing “John, Epistles of” you will find further information about the background and circumstances of 1 John.
It is also a good idea to read related passages in the Bible. For example, Psalm 51 was written by David after his adultery with Bathsheba. We can read the background about David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 – 12. (In Psalm 51 the heading over the psalm tells us why it was written. When such information isn’t given, a Bible dictionary will often mention related passages.) Similarly, if you are studying Philippians, you will want to consult the book of Acts, which provides information about the founding of the church at Philippi (Acts 16).
The more you know about the historical context of a biblical passage, the better equipped you will be to understand the message of the author. Such information can be like finding missing pieces of a puzzle. As they are put into place, the whole picture becomes clearer.
The biblical authors communicated in a variety of ways—through stories, letters, poems, proverbs, parables and symbols. The way they say things adds richness and beauty to what they say.
The literature of the Bible has been classified into various types. These include:
Discourse. The New Testament epistles are the clearest examples of discourse, an extended, logical discussion of a subject. Some of the prophetic sermons and the longer sermons of Jesus also fall into this category.
Prose narrative. This is the style used in books such as Genesis, Joshua and the Gospels. The author describes and recreates theologically significant scenes and events from biblical history.
Poetry. The Psalms, of course, fit in this category. Poetry uses figurative language. It also uses different types of parallelism and is emotional in nature.
Proverbs. Proverbs, such as those in the book of Proverbs, are wise sayings. They are practical principles for living. They should not be confused with commands or promises.
Parables. Jesus used parables more than anyone else in Scripture did. A parable explains a spiritual truth by means of a story or analogy. It is an extended simile or metaphor.
Prophetic literature. The prophetic books include the four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel) and the twelve minor prophets (Hosea, Joel, and Amos through Malachi). The prophets were spokesmen for God who announced the curses and blessings associated with God’s covenant with Israel.
Apocalyptic literature. The books of Daniel and Revelation are a special type of prophecy known as apocalyptic literature. The word apocalypse means to “uncover” or “reveal” something that is hidden. One distinct feature of these books is their heavy use of symbols.
Once you have identified the type of literature you are studying, consult a Bible dictionary. For example, if you are studying the Psalms, it would be wise to read an article on Hebrew poetry in order to learn how it is put together. Likewise, if you are studying Revelation, read an article on apocalyptic literature. It will explain why this kind of literature seems so strange to us and will offer suggestions for interpreting it correctly.
On a large windswept plain in Peru, archaeologists discovered a vast series of strange lines covering an area thirty-seven miles long. The archaeologists first thought these lines were ancient roads. It wasn’t until they happened to fly over the area in an airplane that they discovered their true significance. The lines joined to form a design, an immense mural that could only be seen from high above.
In Bible study it is helpful to get an overview of the book you are studying. The parts of the book only take on their true significance in light of the whole. But remember that the way a book is put together will be closely related to its literary type. An epistle such as Romans is organized around ideas. Historical narratives are put together in a variety of ways. Genesis (after chapter 11) is organized around people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Exodus is organized around geographical locations and events: in Egypt, en route to Sinai and then at Sinai. The Gospel of John focuses primarily on several “signs” which Jesus did. Psalm 119 is structured around the letters of the Hebrew alphabet!
In other words, an overview is like looking through a zoom lens. You begin with a panoramic view through the lens (reading the entire book), then zoom in for a closer look (identifying major sections), then still closer (looking for subsections). Now you are ready to focus closely on the paragraphs, sentences and words.
The more times you read a book, the more familiar you will become with its structure and contents. Your original overview will help you understand the whole of the book. This understanding will tend to affect the way you interpret its parts. But as you gain familiarity with the parts, your understanding of the whole may need to be modified, and so on. Each time you go through this cycle, you will come closer and closer to grasping the meaning of the author.
Once you have an overview of the structure and contents of a book, begin studying it passage by passage. In our modern Bibles a passage can be a paragraph, a group of paragraphs or a chapter. Realize, however, that the Bible did not originally contain chapters, paragraphs or verses (or even punctuation!). These are helpful additions to our Bibles, but we need not be bound by them.
Once you feel you have understood the main subject of the passage and what the author is saying about it, compare your interpretation with that of a good commentary. It can give you additional insights that you might have missed. It can also serve as a corrective if you have misunderstood something the author has said. The New Bible Commentary is an excellent one-volume commentary that will provide help and insight when you need it. But do your best to understand the passage on your own before consulting a commentary