General hermeneutics is that set of rules employed in all materials
which stand in need of interpretation. It is used, with proper adaption to
the subject matter, in art, history, literature, archeology and translation.
Something stands in need of interpretation when something hinders its
spontaneous understanding. To put it another way a gap exists between the
interpreter and the materials to be interpreted, and rules must be set up to
bridge this gap. In that the interpreter is separated from his materials in
time there is a historical gap; in that his culture is different from that of
his text there is a cultural gap; in that the text is usually in a different
language there is the linguistic gap; in that the document originates in
another country there is the geographical gap and the biological gap (the
flora and fauna). In that usually a totally different attitude towards life
and the universe exists in the text it can be said that there is a
. Biblical hermenteutics is the study of those principles which pertain
to the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Here, we will briefly consider the
Understanding the Purpose of the Book
Understanding the Historical Background
Understanding the Culture
Understanding the Context
Understanding the Meaning of the Words
Understanding the Parallel Passages
Understanding the Literary Styles
Understanding How to Make an Application
PURPOSE OF THE BOOK
. There are 66 books in the Bible. Each one has a specific purpose which
relates in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Leviticus has an entirely
different purpose from say, Romans. When you read something in Leviticus, you
would not apply it in the same way as you would Romans. Understanding the
purpose of the Thessalonian letters greatly helps in trying to understand some
of Paul’s comments there. Each of the four gospels has a different purpose,
which explains why they are not identical biographical sketches.
. To aid us in understanding the purpose of a book, we use a Bible
Handbook, or a Survey of the Bible. Commentaries will also contain
information on the purpose of the book. Some Study Bibles also contain this
. One of the more critical principles in understanding the Bible is to
understand the Historical Background of a passage. For instance, in Luke
4:25-30, we find the Jews trying to throw Jesus off a cliff because of what He
said. We can only understand why they wanted to do this by understanding the
historical background of the two people Jesus spoke of. In John 10:22, if we
knew the historical background, we would have very interesting information
about why the Holy Spirit saw it as important to add that the feast of the
dedication was in winter. Understanding the historical background of, say
Ezekiel 26 in how the prophecy against Tyre was fulfilled gives us an example
of how God intends us to interpret prophecy, and with what precision it is
carried out. In Revelation 3:18 we read of the things of which the Lord
counsels the church at Laodicea to buy of Him. If we understood the
historical background of the passage, we’d understand the irony here.
. To aid us in understanding the historical background of books and
passages in the Bible, we could look at a Bible Survey, a Bible Handbook, or a
Bible Dictionary. There are also many books available devoted to the history
of specific times during the Bible. Alfred Edersheim is the classic work on
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS THE MESSIAH. He also wrote a very interesting
work on The Temple. Josephus was a historian who wrote during the time of
Jesus and discusses some of the verbal traditions of the Jews at the time as
well as a ‘secular’ view of Jewish history. Charles Ludwig wrote a book on
the Rulers of New Testament Times which is quite inexpensive, very
interesting, and quite helpful. Commentaries, and some really good Study
Bibles will also contain some historical background.
UNDERSTANDING THE CULTURE
. Again, a critical subject. Not understanding the culture in a passage
sometimes may lead to a false interpretation of what is read. In Romans 12:20,
for example, if we knew the culture, or customs of the land, we’d know that
Paul is not showing us a way of “Christian vengeance.” In Matthew 13, Jesus
draws heavily on the customs of the day in giving His kingdom parables. Not
understanding the customs has lead many liberal scholars down completely false
paths in trying to understand the purpose of the church.
. To aid us in understanding the cultural background of various passages
in the Bible, we use books on manners and customs in the Bible. Again, some
commentaries may contain some of this information.
UNDERSTANDING THE CONTEXT
. Misinterpreting Scripture, and wrenching things out of the text that
were never there goes on all the time. It is not difficult to pull a
Scripture out of its context, and give it a completely different meaning.
When interpreting Scripture, it is critical to keep the text in context. By
context, we mean the parts of a sentence or paragraph, immediately next to or
surrounding a passage. Some passages that seem very difficult clear up nicely
when we carefully examine the context.
. The whole prosperity doctrine and presumptuous faith movements largely
build their doctrines on taking scripture out of context and making the Bible
say things that it never said.
. There is no book really that can help us learn to study the context of
a passage. Our resources here are limited to possibly using a commentary as a
helpful guide in reinforcing, or contradicting our interpretation.
UNDERSTANDING THE MEANING OF THE WORDS
. One of the obstacles we face in understanding the text is finding out
exactly what the author meant when he wrote the words. We must not impose our
definition on the words, but find out what they meant when they were written.
This is a particularly difficult, or at least tedious task, since this problem
is compounded by understanding the english word in our translation,
understanding the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word in the original, and
understanding what that word meant when it was written. Words change in
meaning even in our own generation. Words are not static. They are
constantly changing in their use and meaning. There are many ways we can
attack this problem. On the first level, a good english dictionary should not
be overlooked. You might be surprised at how often this will serve as a
valuable tool. On the next level, it begins to get difficult if you are not
familiar with Greek or Hebrew. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance proves to be
the easiest way to do a complete, original study of a particular word.
However, this is only the beginning! In conjunction with Strong’s, we use a
set of four books published by Baker Book House. These include a Greek
Concordance, a Hebrew Concordance, a Greek Lexicon, and a Hebrew Lexicon.
These books will be discussed later in this text.
. Another way to study the meaning of a word is to use a book called
Vine’s Expository Dictionary. This book lists the english word, gives the
passages which are relevant and discusses the meaning of that word. The only
real shortcoming in using this approach is that it is not exhaustive. There
are words that are not discussed. However, this is an easy short-cut if your
particular word is listed.
. Other approaches are to purchase word studies. Wilson’s Word Studies
are very popular. Wuest’s Word Studies are also popular and inexpensive.
UNDERSTANDING THE PARALLEL PASSAGES
. When studying the Word, one must take into consideration all the
Scriptural passages that shed light on a particular subject. Let the Bible
speak for itself. The Bible in many cases is its own best commentary.
Practice comparing Scripture with Scripture.
. Whenever you come across some new amazing discovery in the Bible
relating to a spiritual principle, there is a nice little rule of thumb I like
to use from the Bible itself. That is, ‘by two or three witnesses shall a
thing be established.’ What I mean here is that if this new discovery is an
important spiritual principle, I should be able to find it reiterated
somewhere else in the Bible.
. The book that really helps in this area is a good Study Bible. I
prefer to use Scofield, but there are others as well.
UNDERSTANDING THE LITERARY STYLES
. Throughout the Bible, you will encounter various literary styles, such
as history, poetry, prophecy, proverbs, and parables. We cannot interpret
these differing styles in the same way. History passages should be
interpreted literally, while poetry passages are often written in figurative
language. The greatest help we have in these circumstances is our common
sense. We also have the context of the passage we are dealing with. If we
understand the background of what we are reading, we should rarely have a
problem with literary styles. Being careful not to jump to conclusions will
serve us well.
Let’s look at a few figures of speech used in the Bible.
. A metaphor is a figure of speech, in which a word or phrase that
ordinarily means one thing is applied to another thing, in order to suggest a
likeness between the two. Examples of metaphors are, “a copper sky” and “a
heart of stone.”
. A simile is also a comparison between two things, like a metaphor;
only, the comparison is indicated by, “like,” or “as.” Examples of this are,
“a face like stone,” “as hard as nails,” and “his eyes were like fire.”
. An analogy is a likeness in some ways between things that are otherwise
unlike. There is an analogy between the human heart and a pump, the Lord and
a shepherd, and the saints and sheep.
. The hyperbole is an exaggerated statement, used for effect, and not
meant to be taken literally. An example is in Matthew 7, where Jesus talks
about the person looking for the specks in his brother’s eye, while having
beams in his own eye.
. The poetic device which takes inanimate objects, and gives them human
characteristics is called a personification. An example is saying that the
mountains sing, or clap their hands.
. Every language has certain peculiar phrases, which cannot be analyzed
by the usual grammatical process. Idioms are a mode of expression that defies
the rules, and depends on the society to supply the definition. The
dictionary defines idioms as, “a small group or collection of words expressing
a single notion.” We often say that “we’re in a pickle,” or “it’s raining
cats and dogs,” or “he’s dead from the neck up.” These are all idioms, and we
depend on everyone “getting the picture” because they live in our society.
MAKING THE APPLICATION
. How do we apply the truths found in the Word? There are some passages
of Scripture that are obviously not to be applied in the same way they were
applied at the time of their writing. Yet, if there was no application for us
today, the passage would never have been in the Bible for “All scripture is
given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for
correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be
perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
. Often, in the Bible there are multiple levels of application. Let’s
briefly look at a few of these levels:
The Practical Application
. Easily seen and most obvious level of application, this is when the
bible hits you right between the eyes – “..this is His commandment, that we
should believe on the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, as
He gave us commandment.” There is no problem in figuring out how to apply
this passage. It is practical, and applicable to our lives right now, this
instant, and also next Tuesday when we are wronged by a brother.
The Secondary Application
. A Secondary Application is often needed when we see commandments or
teachings that primarily apply to the culture during the time of the writing.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul instructs Christian women to cover
their heads. At that time, an uncovered female head was either an unfaithful
wife, or a prostitute. Paul was instructing the women of the day not to
exercise their freedom in this regard in violating the standards of their
culture, thus bringing a scandalous appearance and a reproach to the Gospel.
. One of my favorite illustrations of this secondary application came
from a Christian musician who spoke during a concert. He recalled the story
of Peter walking on water. Here, there are TWO secondary applications. We
all know the story, Peter jumps out of the boat and begins to walk on water
then he takes his eyes off of Jesus and begins to sink. Our application is to
keep our eyes on Jesus and not look at our circumstances. The other
application is that there were 12 people on the boat. The only one who had
enough faith to even jump out of the boat was Peter. The application is that
it is better to at least make mistakes for the Lord than to sit in a nice
The Prophetic Application
. In this application, we are not so much considering the end times as
much as we look at God’s plan for man. There are scads of places in the Bible
where we use this application, mostly in the Old Testament. This is easily
seen in all of the laws and regulations laid out in the Torah, or the five
books of Moses. There are fantastic discoveries awaiting you by studying each
and every detail in these tedious laws. The many sacrifices all look forward
to Jesus Christ as the final, ultimate sacrifice. Daniel’s prophecies tell of
the last days, Isaiah 53 tells of the coming Messiah, Ezekiel 28 tells of
Satan. Almost every chapter in the Old Testament has a prophetic application.
The Mystical Application
. What I mean here is applying the text in order to understand the Lord
more. All over the Bible, we are commanded to know the Lord. The Lord often
says, “And they will know that I am the Lord.” We can learn of the ways in
which God deals with people, points that the Lord tries to make, get an
insight into eternity, we can gain insight into understanding how God thinks,
and why He does certain things. In this case, the question we seek to answer
is, “Why did God put that there?” One of the most dramatic and consistent
insights we get from making the Mystical application is the evidence of design
in the Bible. We can see Jesus Christ on every page. We see the fingerprint
of the Holy Spirit throughout the Bible. This strengthens your faith, and
gives you a respect for the authority of the Word in every situation.
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