As Christians we believe God speaks to us through the holy Scripture of the Bible. It is our duty, then, to do our best to understand what the Bible says to us. Since the Bible was written a long time ago, many of the cultural references and literary styles used are unfamiliar to us today. To truly understand the Bible, we need to understand the background of life and literature 2000 to 3000 years ago as the Bible was being written.
There are four keywords to understanding any Bible passage – observation, interpretation, evaluation, and application.
Observation: What are the facts? What do the words mean? What comes before and after to put the passage in context? Who is speaking? And to whom?
Interpretation: What did the passage mean to the original audience two or three thousand years ago? Are we making the mistake of interpreting the passage through our own experiences rather than those of the original audience? Is the passage using literary techniques like allegory, hyperbole, metaphor or parable to make its point?
Evaluation: What does the passage mean to us today? Can it be applied directly today, or do we need to apply the underlying principle to conditions very different than when it was originally written?
Application: How should I apply what I learn from this passage to live a more godly life? Do I need to change my attitudes or actions as a result?
(Adapted from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (c)1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)
As an example, we can try using this method to understand Exodus 20:3-5.
Observation: Looking back to Exodus 19, we see that the Hebrew people had escaped from slavery in Egypt three months before and were traveling to the Promised Land. This is the first of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The passage forbids making or worshipping idols or worshipping any other gods. Idols are images or symbols of false gods that are worshipped. Most of the Hebrews’ neighbors were pagans at that time in history, and idol worship and worship of multiple gods was very common.
Interpretation: When the ancient Hebrews got discouraged, they often lapsed into worshipping the idols and multiple gods of the pagan peoples they came in contact with instead of worshipping God. This Commandment said that, even in hard times, they must put their trust in God alone.
Evaluation: Paganism has virtually disappeared from Western culture today. So, does this Commandment mean anything to us? What are we tempted to substitute for God in our lives? Do we put our trust in wealth more than in God? Do we seek power over others instead of seeking God? Do we look for fulfillment in pleasure instead of in God? Many people believe these things are the idols and false gods of today’s world.
Application: We may need to honestly and prayerfully examine our priorities to see if God is really more important to us than anything else in our lives.
The Observation and Interpretation steps are fairly objective, and Bible commentaries and other study materials are very helpful. The Evaluation and Application steps are very individual. It is in honestly and prayerfully considering these steps that we can deepen our understanding and faith.
Literary Forms of the Bible
It is helpful to understand the styles of writing used in the Bible, especially since some of those styles are no longer commonly used.
A parable is a simple story that helps us understand a spiritual or moral concept. Jesus was the master of the parable, and a large part of His teachings come to us in the form of the parables he told to his disciples and other people. The plain facts of a parable story are usually meaningless in themselves. It is by analogy or similarity with the story that we gain an understanding of the spiritual or moral lesson of the parable. In the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-8) Jesus tells a story about a man who sowed seed on a farm. Some of the seed fell on rocks or pathways or among thorns where it could not grow. Other seed fell on good ground where it produced a bountiful crop. However, the point of this story has nothing to do with farming techniques. As Jesus explained in Luke 8:11-15, the seed represents the Word of God, which is offered to all people. Like the seed that fell in bad places, the Word of God does not produce good results in people who reject it for one reason or another. But, like the seed that fell on good ground, the Word of God grows strong within people who are receptive and it bears good (spiritual) fruit.
A simile uses “like” or “as” to give us a mental picture of something by comparing it to something else. “As the deer pants for water, so I long for you, O God.” (Psalms 42:1) and “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27) are examples of similes.
A metaphor is just a simile with the “like” or “as” left out. “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11) does not mean Jesus herds sheep. It is a metaphor meaning Jesus is our master and protector in the same way as a shepherd is master and protector of his sheep. “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) does not mean we glow in the dark. It is a metaphor meaning our good example can show others the way to Christ like a lamp shows us the way in the dark.
Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration to make a point and is very common in the Bible. Examples include “Rivers of water run down from my eyes, Because men do not keep Your law.” (Psalms 119:136) and “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25).
An Anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics or experiences to God. Examples include “The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His”. (2 Chronicles 16:9), and “For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, And His ears are open to their prayers; But the face of the LORD is against those who do evil. (1 Peter 3:12). These verses do not mean that God, who is Spirit, has eyes, ears and a face like us. Instead, they tell us that God is always seeking righteousness among us and opposing evil.
Irony is saying one thing but meaning the opposite. Paul’s tongue-in-cheek praise of the vain false teachers in 1 Corinthians 4:8 is an example of irony in the Bible.
Apocalypse comes from a Greek word meaning “uncovering” or “revealing.” Apocalyptic literature uses elaborate visions, powerful symbols and numbers to reveal heavenly secrets. The New Testament book of Revelation and parts of the Old Testament books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah are written in apocalyptic form.
Most of the apocalyptic works were written during times of severe persecution. The symbols were clearly understood by the initiated but not by the persecutors. In Revelation, “Babylon” is used as a code word for Rome and the Roman Empire (Revelation 14:8, 16:19, 17:5, 18:2, 10, 21). Hebrew letters were also used for numbers, and the beast whose number is 666 (Revelation 13:18) is often assumed to be a reference to the Roman emperor Nero because of the similarity of “Nero Caesar” and “666” when written in Hebrew.
The Bible is not a collection of “one-liners.” All verses must be interpreted in the context of the verses that come before and after them, the whole passage, the chapter, the book and even the whole Bible. It is the nature of language that it takes many sentences or even paragraphs to convey a complex concept. A single Bible verse or passage often tells us only one aspect of a topic. We must look at all the Bible passages on a particular topic to get the true picture. If we look at just one or a few verses, we can get an incomplete view or even a totally wrong view of the Bible’s teachings.