Wayne Jackson opined, “In my judgment the greatest problem in the church today (in any age, in fact is) a lack of Bible knowledge. This is the tap-root of all other problems which plague the Kingdom of Christ” (Jackson, A Study Guide to Greater Bible Knowledge, Introduction). Whether one agrees with his opinion or not, a lack of knowledge is a serious matter (Hosea 4:6; Matthew 22:29; 2 Peter 3:16).
The purpose of this series is to help us be better Bible students. Here are some principles which may help with interpretation.
17. Interpreting Sentences
(1) Always interpret a sentence according to the known purpose of the author.
(2) Interpret the sentence in light of its immediate context.
Sentences and words may have different meanings when expressed in different situations. For example, consider the phrase, “He hit the cat” in the following situations: (a) A man driving a car down the road; (b) A child playing with a kitten; (c) A man hunting a jaguar; (d) Two men fighting (This illustration provided in Roy H. Deaver’s Brown Trail class notes on Hermeneutics).
(3) Interpret the sentence in light of the fact that the Bible must always harmonize with itself when understood correctly.
(4) Interpret the sentence in light of other statements by the same author on the same subject.
(5) Interpret the sentence in light of statements of other writers of equal authority on the same subject.
18. Interpreting words
(1) All words are to be understood in their literal sense, unless the evident meaning of the context forbids.
Figurative language is the exception, literal language is the rule; hence, we are not to regard anything as figurative until we feel compelled to do so by the evident import of the passage.
(2) Commands generally are to be understood in a literal sense.
This is a general truth. However, there are some commands given, and declarative statements made with the similar force of a command, in figurative language, in the scriptures (Matthew 5:16; John 3:3).
(3) It is wise to give consideration to how those addressed understood the word (though, there are cases where the hearers misunderstood cf. Matthew 16:5-12).
(4) Bible words are best defined by the Bible.
The Bible sometimes uses words in a unique way (e.g. apostle, elder, deacon, the breaking of bread, brethren). The Bible can be used as its own dictionary. Consider how the Bible uses the term.
(5) Words of definite action can have but one meaning.
(6) The writer’s explanation is the best definition that can be found [e.g. Immanuel = God with us (Matthew 1:23); Rabbi = Teacher (John 1:38)].
(7) Always keep the author’s known purpose in mind.
(8) The meaning of the word is frequently known by the words used in construction with it.
(9) Watch for possible synonyms and antonyms (or near synonyms and near antonyms). These may be extremely helpful in understanding words or phrases.
The Bible contains parallelism. Some parallels are synonymous parallels (e.g. Psalm 8:4; 24:1; 91:13). Others are antithetic parallels (e.g. Proverbs 15:1; 29:15). Look for parallels and other restatements of a point, or related words. This may help one discern meaning.
(10) Illustrations or parables may give the peculiar sense in which a word is to be understood [e.g. neighbor (Luke 10:25-37)].
(11) Etymological construction will many times tell the meaning of the word.
D.R. Dungan explains, “Nearly all the names of the ancients had meanings, and when, they are constructed of more than one syllable, the meaning of the several syllables will give the meaning of the whole word or name. Beersheba, from beer, wells, and Sebiah, seven would be seven wells; Bethel, house of God – are specimens of the meaning attached to the names of places” (Dungan, Hermeneutics, p. 191).
He also cautions, “It should be confessed, however, the rule does not always work, and some words have changed their meanings entirely since they were first made” (ibid).
(12) A study of the history of a word is sometimes necessary in order to get its meaning at a particular time.
Consider this illustration: “The name board, another form of the word broad, was originally applied to a piece of timber, hewed or sawed, so as to form a wide, thin plank. It was also applied to the table on which food was placed, and it became common to speak of gathering around a festive board. By a similar association, the word was also applied to a body of men who were wont to gather around a table to transact business, and hence we have board of trustees, board of commissioners. The word is also used for the deck of a vessel; hence the terms on board, overboard…” (Dungan, p. 192).
The use of a word can evolve over time. The aim is to identify what a word meant at a time and place. “‘Let’ once meant to hinder; ‘prevent’ once meant to come before” (ibid). “Boot” means one thing in England and another thing in America.
(13) The proper definition of a word may be used in place of a word.
This is a great test of how you define a word. Remove the word and supply your definition. Does it fit?
(14) Try to use primary meanings when defining words.
D.R. Dungan explains, “‘To eat’ means literally to chew and swallow… ‘To eat’ means secondarily to corrode, to consume, …to wear away by degrees, to prey upon… ‘to consume’ means to waste away slowly, to be exhausted, to squander” (Dungan, p. 193). If one skips to secondary meanings without need to do so ‘To eat’ becomes defined to mean ‘to squander.’ Therefore, “The man eats his sandwich” becomes “the man squanders his sandwich.” Obviously, this is not what is meant. However, this is the type of mistake which happens, when one skips to secondary meanings without need.
*I claim no originality for the information in this article. These points were gleaned from D.R. Dungan’s Hermeneutics; Clint Lockhart’s Principles of Interpretation; and Roy H. Deaver’s Brown Trail class notes on Hermeneutics