In the Old Testament book of Psalms, David the psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8 NIV)!
God’s Word spreads before us as a smorgasbord of nutritious and satisfying truths necessary for us to grow in Him. Yet, just as it would be difficult to prepare a wonderfully fulfilling holiday dish if you didn’t understand the recipe, so preparing spiritual meals proves virtually impossible if you don’t understand the meaning of Scripture.
Just as observation helps you answer the question, What do you see? So, interpretation helps you answer the question, What does it mean?
“Help me understand the meaning of your commandments, and I will meditate on your wonderful deeds.” (Psalm 119:27)
David, Israel’s shepherd king, possessed a profound devotion for the Word of God. In fact, he composed Psalm 119 as an ode to Scripture—extolling the wonders and pleasures of knowing God through His Law. Yet, David fully understood that mere human understanding of Scripture was insufficient. That’s why we regularly hear David ask the Lord’s supernatural enablement in understanding the meaning of Scripture—in other words, interpretation. In the same manner, then, anyone desiring to search the Scriptures must approach God and His Word with the same supernatural perspective.
Prayer is essential to discovering the biblical author’s original intent. We simply need God’s divine assistance. That’s why it’s critical that we ask Him for His help. —Charles R. Swindoll
Key Questions to Interpreting the Scriptures
When studying any particular passage of Scripture, several key questions help you unearth the context. Much of this overlaps with observation. For instance, context has to do with the geographic, historic, and cultural setting of the biblical passage. In short, it’s the who, what, when, and where of the text. Ask:
- What is the setting?
Observe people, places, names, clues about the time of year, the weather, or the geography of the scene. It all helps to put together the rich fabric of the story or passage.
- What is the genre?
Is this passage poetry, as in the Psalms or Ecclesiastes? Is it narrative—that is, does it tell a story, like Exodus, as the Israelites wander in the wilderness? Perhaps it’s a parable—smaller, fictional pieces that pack a powerful lesson, as when Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 or the farmer sowing seed in Matthew 13. Or is it prophetic, as in the grand oracles of Ezekiel, Daniel, or the New Testament book of Revelation?
- Who is the author, and why was it written?
Understanding who wrote the particular Scripture you are reading, and why, will also help you unlock its overall meaning. Clues to this can be found in the notes of your study Bible, in the introduction to the book also in your study Bible or by consulting a variety of Bible commentaries. There are numerous online commentaries as well to guide you in your study.
This level of prayerful, and sincere, study will ensure you develop an accurate understanding of what the passage means.
Hazards to Guard Against
There are also important hazards to avoid when attempting to interpret a passage of Scripture. When putting together your interpretation of Scripture, guard against . . .
- Reading your personal bias into the text.
Interpretation is not setting out to find passages that prove your theory or reinforce your particular point of view. Interpretation is discovering truth and meaning out ofthe text, not bring your view tothe passage.
- Being overly confident and dogmatic.
Guard against becoming a self-appointed expert on a passage that has for centuries, possibly even millennia, remained a mystery! That’s why the reminder to ask the Lord’s help is so critical at this stage of searching the Scriptures.
- Placing yourself above the authority of Scripture.
Ultimately, God’s Word must govern every aspect of our lives. It is essential that the student not only be careful and diligent in his or her study of the Scriptures but also to live humbly and consistently in submission to them.
Just as David bowed in prayer to see the Lord’s enablement in understanding Scripture, so must we ask the Lord for guidance as we seek to interpret His Word.
To learn more, see the Searching the Scriptures study.