Study 19: Reading Exodus

Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice and let Israel go?

Exodus 5:2

We are continuing our study on Hermeneutics, this time looking at the book of Exodus and applying the principles we’ve learned to draw out the theological message Moses intended for his audience.

The book of Exodus has provided a deep resource for Bible-story-time for parents everywhere. However, before getting carried away with the drama of plagues, sea split in two and fiery tornadoes… let’s apply our hermeneutics and understand the point of the book!

Setting

Moses is the author (see 17:14; 24:4), writing to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob during their wilderness journey to Canaan.

Gleason Archer notes: “The information needed to make the book of Exodus intelligible is supplied by the book of Genesis. It is in Genesis that the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are spelled out… Moreover, the fact that Exodus 1:1 begins with the word and suggests that it was intended to follow the preceding book. 

The Plot

  • Dire threats to the descendants of Jacob:  slavery and genocide (1-2)
  • The exile and call of Moses (2-4)
  • The destruction of Egypt by nine Plagues (5-10)
  • The 10th Plague and the Passover (11-13)
  • Rescue at the Red/Reed Sea (14-15)
  • Rescue in the wilderness—water, food, Amalek, efficient court system (15-18)
  • Covenant ratification at Mt. Sinai (19-24)
  • Tabernacle design and duties revealed (25-31)
  • The golden calf and Yahweh’s forgiveness (32-34)
  • The completion of the tabernacle (35-40)

Significant Speeches by Significant Characters

God:

  • Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.”‘  (4:22-23)
  • I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession; I am the LORD.  (6:6-8)
  • You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…  (19:4-6)

Moses:

  • Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent.  (14:13-14)

Significant Speeches by Insignificant Characters

Pharaoh’s Magicians: ” This is the finger of God.” (8:19, after the 3rd Plague)

The Egyptian Chariot Drivers: “Let us flee from Israel, for the LORD is fighting for them…” (14:25)

Moses’ Father-in-Law: “Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. So Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people.” (18:9-11)  

Key Editorial Insights/Summaries

2:23-25 Israel’s groaning and God’s remembrance of His covenant with Abraham
14:30-31 God’s act and Israel’s belief

Key Rhetorical Question

Pharaoh: “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?” (5:2)

Pharaoh’s servants: “Do you not realize that Egypt is destroyed?” (10:7)

The People at Meribah: “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children…? Is the LORD among us, or not? (17:3, 7)

Moses to Israel at Meribah: “Why do you test the LORD?” (17:2)

Moses to God: “Is it not by Your going with us, so that we… may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (33:16)

Repeated Words or Phrases

Multiplied
Exodus 1:7.  The sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them. (see also 1:10, 12)
Compare Genesis 17:2, I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly. (see also Gen 12:2; 15:5; 16:10; 17:6-7; 22:17; 35:11, etc.)

The God of your fathers (3:6, 13, 15, 16; 4:5) and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2:24; 3:15-16; 4:5; 6:3, 8; 32:13; 33:1)
The book of Exodus reaches back to Genesis to find hope of deliverance in Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Harden
First use:  God of Pharaoh—I will harden his heart (Ex 4:21)
God the active agent:  God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; and of the Egyptians generally at the Red Sea 14:4, 8,17)
Pharaoh the active agent:  Pharaoh hardened his heart (8:15, 32; 9:34)
Agent unstated:  Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (7:13, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35)
Note: These verses (along with Ex 33:19) were used by the apostle Paul as a key factor of his argument that God is sovereign over belief and forgiveness (Rom 9:6-18). 

Land  (as promised by God; cp. Gen 12:7; 15:18-21; 35:12; 50:24)
Exodus 3:8.  I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey … (see also Ex 6:4, 8; 12:25; 13:5, 11; 15:17; 20:12; 23:23, 29-31; 32:13)

Know
This is the key word in the first half of Exodus.  Both the descendants of Jacob specifically and the ancient world generally were tragically deficient in their knowledge of Yahweh.  The events of the Exodus were enacted by God to correct that ignorance.

Of Yahweh knowing Israel: “God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them [Heb:  knew them].”(2:25)
As the apostle noted in Galatians 4:9, it is always of first priority that God know us, and subsequently that we know Him.  Therefore, the book of Exodus starts with God knowing Israel.
Of Pharaoh knowing Yahweh: “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” (5:2) “I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth.” (9:14)
Of Israel knowing Yahweh: “Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God…” (6:7) “…I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may perform these signs of Mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son, and of your grandson, how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I performed My signs among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.  (10:1-2)
Of the nations—personified in Jethro—knowing Yahweh: “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people.” (Ex 18:11; cp. Joshua 2:9)  
Of Moses knowing Yahweh: “…You have said, ‘I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your sight… Show me Your glory!” (33:12-13, 18)

Observation: Moses felt inadequate to lead God’s people until He knew God—especially God’s compassionate forgiveness.  It’s noteworthy that God’s self-revelation in response to Moses’ request included His goodness and absolute sovereignty (33:19), His patient compassion and loyal covenant love (34:6), and also His unswerving justice (34:7).
Moses’ response to his new, profound knowledge of God was worship:  Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship (34:8).  
Point: To lead God’s people, a man must have a convinced knowledge of God’s goodness and sovereignty; furthermore, he must have a mature and worshipful understanding of God’s justice and loyal, forgiving compassion.  

Echoed in the rest of the OT
Joshua 2:9-11 (Rahab); 3:10 (Israel); 4:24 (all the peoples of the earth) 1 Sam 17:46 (Goliath) 1 Kings 8:60 (all people); 18:37 (Israel); 20:28 (Ahab) 2 Kings 5:15 (Naaman the leper); 19:19 (all the kingdoms of the earth) 1 Chron 28:9 (Solomon)
2 Chron 33:13 (Manasseh) Hosea 4:6, My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge. Isaiah 5:13, My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge. Ezekiel uses the phrase, that you/they will know the LORD, fifty-four times.

Repeated Themes

God’s Unique Protection of Israel

  • But against any of the sons of Israel a dog will not even bark … that you may understand [know] how the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. (Ex 11:7)
  • You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. (19:4)


Antagonism toward Moses’ (and thus God’s) Leadership 

  • The people’s churlish rebellion against Moses and God regarding water and food in the book of Exodus (Ex 15:23-25; 16:2-3; 17:1-2) would reach its final expression in the book of Numbers.

The Mosaic/Sinaitic Covenant

“[By this covenant,] the Abrahamic nation would become a microcosm of the kingdom of God and would function in that capacity as an agency by which God would reconcile the whole creation to Himself.”  (in Zuck, A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, 27)

Observation:
Interestingly, this covenant is usually named after its mediator, rather than its recipients.  To parallel the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Davidic Covenants, the covenant of Sinai would most accurately be labelled the Israel Covenant.

The Setting:  the Peaceful Year at Mt. Sinai
God did not lead Israel directly from Goshen to the promised land, because a number of important preliminaries had to be put in place before the nation went to war.  The relationship between Israel and Yahweh had to be clarified.  They needed an authoritative moral and civil law code.  They needed a place to meet Yahweh, and they required authoritative regulations governing His worship.  All this was accomplished in the peaceful year they spent encamped at Mt. Sinai.

“Before this moment in her history, Israel had had no experience in self-government; in fact, she had no laws of her own and no identity as an organized people. (Kaiser, A History of Israel, 117)

“As Israel had been making her way from Egypt to Sinai during the prior sixty days, she had been only a vast host of people with little order or organization.  Except for size, she could scarcely be called a nation.” (Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History, 143)

Key Concept:  Yahweh, the Victorious Warrior King
The LORD is a warrior; The LORD is His name …. The LORD shall reign forever and ever. (Ex 15:3, 18)

As King, Yahweh had:

  • rescued Israel from slavery and genocide 
  • provided military protection from both Egypt and Amalek
  • provided basic needs (water and food)
  • provided a just, efficient court system

What does anyone want from government except protection from violent enemies, assurance that life’s physical necessities will be available, and an even-handed, efficient court system?

Summary of Exodus 19-40

The Covenant Proposed

  • Its Basis: 19:4 “I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself…”
    • “Yahweh graciously chose, protected, guided, and helped Israel and her ancestors from the very beginning of Creation to their arrival at Mount Sinai—with the implication that Israel has every reason to be grateful to Yahweh and to accept Yahweh’s generous covenant.”  (Dorsey “Can These Bones Live?”, in Evangelical Journal, 1991, 16)
  • Its Duties 19:5. “If you will indeed obey My voice…”
  • Its Benefits
    • Unique relationship with God:  You shall be My own possession (19:5)
    • Unique access to God:  You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests (19:6)
    • Unique status before God:  a holy nation (19:6)
    • “Israel must be viewed as bearing a mediatorial responsibility, of serving as an intercessor between a holy God and all the peoples of the earth… that God and the peoples of earth might have unbroken communion.” (in Zuck, A biblical Theology of the Old Testament, 13)
  • Its Preliminary Acceptance
    • Exodus 19:8.  All that the LORD has spoken we will do!


The Covenant Expounded
Its General Stipulations: The Ten Commandments (Ex 20)
Its Specific Stipulations: the “Book of the Covenant” (Ex 21-23)

The Covenant Ratified
On earth (24:7-8)
In heaven (24:9-11)
Exodus 24:10-11.  They saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank.

The Covenant Broken
The golden calf apostasy (Ex 32)

The Covenant Renewed
Levitical cleansing of the camp (resulting in the priestly covenant, Ex 32:25-29; Mal 2:4), Moses’ intercession, and God’s gracious forgiveness (Ex 33-34)

The Covenant Presence (of Yahweh)

  • Promised: My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.  (Ex 33:14)
  • “Exodus is indeed the book of the presence of the Lord among his people.”  (The Message of Exodus, BST, 195)
  • Fulfilled in the Tabernacle

The Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting, as it was also called, was God’s travelling military headquarters. It visibly represented Yahweh’s presence with His people. However, since Yahweh was a divine King, it was also a place of worship. Therefore, Exodus 25-31 and 35-40 detail the furniture, structure, and priests of the temple-tent where Israel met God.

There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you… (25:22)

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (40:34)

Christological Allusions


The Passover lamb (Ex 4:22; 12:23; 1 Cor 5:7) 
God’s redemption of a people for His own possession (Ex 6:6; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9-10)
Moses as covenant intercessor (Ex 32:11-14, 30; 34:9; Heb 8:6)
The Angel of the Lord (Ex 23:20-21; 1 Cor 10:4)

Study 18: Interpreting Story

For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4

We are continuing our study on Hermeneutics: the art and science of Biblical Interpretation, this time focusing on Narrative.

Something that is uniquely human is that we process life through story. As we retell the events of the day, recall an important event from long ago, or try to illustrate a concept we begin to process, select and arrange those events as a narrative. Why? It’s the way we make sense of things.

God wired us for story. And in Scripture, God gave us stories.

Now while story is a human trait, it is expressed in various ways. The Western tradition of storytelling is quite different to the East; or more particularly, the ancient Middle-East. We need to cross a vast chasm of time (up to 4000 years), culture (most agrarian), geographic, political and religious. Moreover, the authors of Scripture employed a variety of styles and literary devices we may ignore and completely overlook their significance. 

Our intention in reading Scripture is first to discover the divinely intended meaning communicated by the original author to the original audience in their original context. The biblical narratives are masterful literature: every word, every element, every part of the structure is precisely chosen to accomplish the author’s intention. Remember that the creator of communication, God Himself, stands behind the text of Scripture. As He said in Isaiah 55:11 “So is My word which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

To interpret narrative, Walt Kaiser points out: “The place we must begin is with the plain, natural, original, historical meaning of the passage.  If we ever abandon that as our starting point, we will have forfeited all hope for arriving at any agreed sense of meaning of a text.”

The five key components of biblical narrative are the setting, the plot, the characters, the dialog, and the theological purpose of the story. Clear-headed Bible interpretation must pay close attention to all five. Let’s lay out the guidelines for interpreting narrative:

Pay Close Attention to the Setting of the Story

To interpret a narrative fully, it is vital that one have a firm grasp on the historical-cultural background and the geographic setting of a Biblical narrative. This is the backdrop on which the story plays out.

  • Is it mere coincidence that the sermon in which Jesus spoke about the relationship between His teaching and the Mosaic Law Code was delivered from a mountain (Matt 5:1)?  What Yahweh did at Sinai, Jesus did in Matthew 5-7.  The setting of the Sermon on the Mount is an Everest-like commentary on the authority of Jesus of Nazareth.
  • In teaching Genesis 12ff., to understand how Abraham’s faith was tested by time, it is vital to pay attention to the chronological milestones supplied by Moses.  Abraham was 75 (Gen 12:4) when God called him, 85 when the Hagar experiment was undertaken (16:3, 16), 99 when God promised him a son through Sarah (17:1), and 100 when Isaac was born (21:5).  A twenty-five year wait for the son of promise is a severe test of faith.

Carefully Outline the Plot (the Events) of the Story

Biblical stories follow the normal pattern of stories the world over.  They start with a peaceful situation into which a problem or tension is introduced. A solution to that problem is sought, and in the end, there is resolution, a return to a peaceful situation. Consider Daniel and the Lion’s Den:

  • Initial situation:  Because of his extraordinary abilities and integrity, Daniel is appointed as one of three commissioners over the entire Persian Empire. 
  • Tension:  Jealous enemies plot against Daniel, arranging his unjust execution. 
  • Solution:  God intervenes to protect Daniel from persecution by subduing the lions. 
  • Resolution:  The wicked persecutors become a meal for the great cats, and Darius circulates a decree declaring Daniel’s God to be the living, eternal God. 

To approach this, you will need to divide the story into its proper segments (don’t rely on the chapter headings!). Often the narratives consist of a series of shorter stories within a larger story. For example, the various miracle accounts within the overall story of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  To discover the smaller stories within a larger narrative, look for two things:

  • a complete problem/solution storyline
  • significant changes in time and place

 Note the example from the anointing of David:

  • Then Samuel went to Ramah, but Saul went up to his house at Gibeah of Saul… (1 Sam 15:34)
  • Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel arose and went to Ramah. (1 Sam 6:13)

Note the change in scene and the repeated phrase Samuel went to Ramah tells you quite clearly that the anointing of David is a complete story within the larger story of 1 Samuel, and should be studied and understood as a unit.

Note Important Details about the Characters of the Story

We hardly know what Abraham, Moses, David or Paul looked like. However, on occasion, the biblical author gives some details about a characters appearance or reputation. Take special note of this.

For example, the summary of Job’s character in Job 1:1 (blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil) is super important. It establishes from the start that Job did not suffer because of his wickedness; he suffered in spiteof his extraordinary righteousness. Some cautions, though:

  • The human characters of a Bible story are a flea on a lion’s back when compared to the story’s central figure: God. He is always the most important character in a Bible story—even in the book of Esther where His name is not mentioned. 
  • The actions of Bible heroes are not always included in a story because they are noble.  For example, David had multiple wives, committed adultery, and murdered to cover his sin.  Always allow the teaching sections of Scripture to inform your conclusions regarding the behavior of the characters in biblical narratives.
  • The events experienced by biblical characters are often one-time events, not intended to be re-experienced or imitated by believers today (Jesus walking on water, Moses speaking to God face to face). Narrative is not necessarily normative.
  • Be very careful not to impose a psychological or social interpretation quite alien to the Scripture on a biblical character’s attitudes and actions.

Daniel Block writes, “Much of what goes by the label of ‘biographical preaching’ is little more than the imposition of contemporary psychological theory or the latest thinking on leadership style upon biblical texts… Such approaches tend, on one hand, to lead interpreters to find what they are looking for, rather than what is actually there, and on the other hand to yield overly optimistic perceptions of the characters that appear in biblical texts.”

Pay Special Attention to the Dialogs in the Story

Biblical authors often tell their story and its theology by means of the words or dialogs of their characters. Especially pay attention when an insignificant character says something of theological importance.

  • In Ruth, the author could have stated in his own words that Ruth converted from worshipping the gods of Moab to serving Yahweh, the God of Israel. However, it was far more compelling to quote Ruth’s own words: “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).
  • David and Goliath: without the dialogs between David, Saul, and Goliath, 1 Samuel 17 would devolve into nothing more than an entertaining account of David’s improbable victory over a Philistine giant.  However, with those dialogs, it is a theological treatise on God’s power.
    • Saul: “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him.” (1 Sam 17:33)
    • David: “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine!” (17:37)
    • Goliath: “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky 
      and the beasts of the field.” (17:44)
    • David: “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I 
      come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.”(17:45)

So when studying narrative, give special attention to the words of the characters. In many cases, their conversations or speeches reveal the theological point of the story.

Identify the Theological Message the Author wanted to Communicate

This is the point of your study. The biblical authors recorded history to teach theological lessons. In a very explicit example of this, the Apostle John says as much in John 20:31 “These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Here are seven tips for getting to the Biblical Historian’s theological purpose:

  1. Direct Statements
    • Does the author directly state the theological lesson to which he hopes to draw your attention?  John 20:31, cited above, provides the classic example of this.  All the words, deeds, and miracles of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel were included to compel one to believe Jesus is Messiah and God. Naturally then, John’s purpose must shape one’s interpretation of individual sections.
    • See also 2 Kings 17:7-23 where the author summarizes the theological point of his report on the evil kings of the Northern Kingdom.
  2. Editorial Comments
    • Sailhamer notes, “Biblical narratives, in particular are noticeably reader conscious. In reading them, one rarely has the impression of being alone, the authors have their way of guiding the reader along…”
    • See how this plays out in Acts:
      • [They] began to speak the word of God with great boldness. (4:31)
      • Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (5:42)
      • And the word of God kept on spreading. (6:7)
      • Those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. (8:4)
      • [Paul was] preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. (28:31)
      • The Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (2:47)
      • Many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of men came to be about five thousand. (4:4)
      • All the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number. (5:14)
      • So the church … continued to increase. (9:31)
      • And many believed in the Lord. (9:42)
      • The hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (11:21)
    • Luke wrote the book of Acts to show that the early church was faithful to obey Christ’s commission to preach the gospel and that God was faithful to bless their efforts with many conversions.  Luke’s theological message?  Whatever internal problems or external pressures threatened its progress, the church preached and the church grew.
  3. Significant Speeches
    • Speeches are like road signs to the theological lesson of the story. Note especially speeches by insignificant characters (who could have been left out of the narrative without anything being lost). When the author makes a point of quoting the words insignificant characters, you can be sure he is directing the reader’s attention to something important.
      • Nebuchadnezzar: “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth… He is able to humble those who walk in pride.” (Dan 4:35, 37). 
        Daniel didn’t need to supplement Nebuchadnezzar’s speech with a closing editorial comment. Nebuchadnezzar’s words summarized the theological lesson of Daniel 4 perfectly.
      • The widow of Zarephath regarding Elijah: In 1 Kings 17:1, a completely unknown man named Elijah suddenly appears in the court of Israel and tells King Ahab that it will not rain until he says it will. Then Elijah (who is as much a mystery to the reader at this point as he is to King Ahab) goes into hiding, staying with the widow of Zarephath.  After Elijah raises her son from the dead, the widow makes this declaration:
        “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is true.” (1 Kgs 17:24).  
        Although she is an insignificant character, the author uses the widow’s words to express the view of Elijah he wants his readers to adopt. 
  4. Structural Devices
    • Note the literary or structural devices the author uses to ‘glue’ his story together. After all, the chapter and verse divisions weren’t added until the Middle Ages and they often obscure the original author’s organizational designs. Here are some examples:
      • Sometimes biblical authors cluster groups of stories together to make one point.  The miracle accounts of the Gospels are obvious examples of this literary technique.
      • Chiasmus: in Genesis 7-8, Moses purposely structured the story of the Flood to emphasize God’s complete sovereignty over the number of days comprising each stage of the Flood:  7, 40, 150, 150, 40, and 7 days.
        Of course, Moses did not impose that chronological structure on the Flood. God did. And Moses’ intentional recording of God’s time schedule for this worldwide disaster is one of the key theological lessons of Genesis 7-8:  what appears to men to be an out of control catastrophe is, to God, a tightly governed event run on an exact time schedule. David summarized this in Psalm 29:10 when he said, The Lord sat as King at the flood; yes, the Lord sits as King forever.
      • Inclusio: this refers to the technique of “book-ending” a large block of text with similar words or themes to highlight the fact that everything in between the bookends works together as a unit.
  5. Repeated Words or Themes
    • In Jonah, the word compassion is used three times, in 4:2, 10, 11.  The repetition of the word compassion provides a clue to the book’s overall theological message:  God’s compassion on Gentile sinners.
    • Ezra 7:9, 27-28; 8:18-23, 31-32.  The repetition of the phrase the hand of our God (or its equivalent) highlights the theological message of this section of Ezra:  God’s providential care for the returning exiles.
  6. Rhetorical Question
    • A rhetorical question is a question, the answer to which is so obvious, the author does not supply the answer.  OT writers often employed key rhetorical questions to highlight their theological message. For example:
      • Pharaoh to Moses: “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?  (Exodus 5:2)
        Yahweh will spend the next nine chapters showing Pharaoh who He is and why He should be obeyed.
      • God to Jonah: Should I not have compassion on Nineveh… ?  (Jonah 4:11)
        The question needs no answer.  It is perfectly appropriate for a God who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abundant in loving-kindness to extend mercy to the undeserving Ninevites.  In other words, Jonah’s account is not about a naughty prophet and a hungry whale.  Instead, it is a powerful theological lesson about God’s compassion toward undeserving sinners.
  7. Choice of Material
    • To find the theological lesson of a historical account, note what information the author includes and excludes. For example:
      • Why did the Gospel writers include so little information about Jesus’ childhood and youth? Why didn’t they tell us what Jesus looked like? Why do all four gospels dedicate so much attention to Jesus’ miracles, the passion week, and especially His death and resurrection?
        The Gospel writers ignored trivial information about Jesus’ physical appearance and childhood and chose, instead, to load their accounts with reports of Jesus’ miracles, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection, thus revealing their theological agendas.
      • In 1 & 2 Chronicles, the author wants to exalt the Davidic covenant and to idealize the Davidic line, so he ‘sanitised’ his report of David’s reign, excluding David’s adultery, murder, and family conflicts, so that David could be presented as the ideal king. The Chronicler employed the same technique with Solomon, skipping any mention of Solomon’s serial idolatry. The Chronicler was not being dishonest as he did this; he was simply excluding material that did not serve his theme: the benefits of a noble Davidic ruler who righteously implemented joyful Yahweh worship.

Let me summarize it in one place. To get the most out of a biblical story (to get the the theological message of the narrative), look out for:

  1. the setting
  2. important details about the characters
  3. the plot or events of the story
  4. structural (literary) devices
  5. editorial comments
  6. key dialog
  7. significant speeches
  8. repeated words or themes
  9. key rhetorical questions
  10. the author’s choice of material

This has been a long one. Well done for pressing on all the way to the end! No one said hermeneutics would be an easy exercise. But it will most surely bless your study of God’s Word.

Study 17: The Great Theme of Scripture

There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. There will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever.

Revelation 22:3-5

We are continuing our study on Hermeneutics: the art and science of Biblical Interpretation.

When reading the Bible, there is a sense in which you are reading a series of books, letters and poems written over a period of about 2000 years by 40 different authors from three continents in three different languages. And yet, there is a single divine voice that speaks without confusion or contradiction proclaiming a central theme.

While there have been many themes proposed for the whole of Scripture, there is one which goes from the first page to the last – and that is kingdom. The two other alternatives, salvation and promise, fail to encompass the opening two chapters of the Bible, since there was no need for God’s saving promises until after the Fall.  In contrast, God’s reign over the universe generally, and over the earth and the descendants of Jacob specifically, encompasses the entire Scripture.

Michael Vlach writes in his excellent book He Will Reign Forever, “The kingdom is a thread that runs from the first chapter of the Bible through the last.  Genesis 1 begins with God as Creator/King of the universe and man as God’s image-bearer who is created to “rule” and “subdue” the earth …. the last chapter of the Bible shows God and the Lamb on the throne and God’s people ruling on the new earth (Rev 22:3, 5).”

The backbone that provides the structure for the kingdom work of God comprises five vertebrae: the five key covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and the New Covenant)

  • “It seems clear that the central focus of biblical theology is the interlocking concepts of kingdom and covenant, and not covenant alone.” (Kenneth Barker)
  • “The kingdom of God is one of the grand themes, if not the theme, of Scripture. As the expression of God’s historical work, therefore, the kingdom of God is really the end of all his biblical covenants.” (Robert Saucy)

The biblical covenants are mile markers along the highway to the ultimate reestablishment of God’s kingdom reign over the earth and the human race.

Vlach writes:
The Noahic Covenant promises stability of nature as the platform for God carrying out His kingdom purposes.  The Abrahamic Covenant reveals that Abraham will be the father of a great nation, Israel, who will serve as the platform for bringing blessings to all nations.  The Davidic Covenant shows that the ultimate King will be a descendant of David who will rule and bless the entire world from Israel.  The New Covenant explains how God will change the hearts of His people and grant His Holy Spirit so they will always obey Him.  Each of these covenants works together in harmony to guarantee that God’s kingdom purposes will be fulfilled. 
The kingdom plan will be carried out through the eternal and unconditional covenants—Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New.  The Mosaic Covenant was a temporary and conditional covenant that Israel failed.  Because Israel did not keep the Mosaic Covenant, God’s kingdom did not come in its fullness and there is the need for the superior New Covenant, which will enable Israel (and others) to obey the Lord.

The Abrahamic Covenant

Keith Essex notes, “It is recognized by all serious students of the Bible that the covenant with Abraham furnishes the key to the entire Old Testament and reaches for its fulfillment into the New.”

The Abraham Covenant is:

  • The source of patriarchal blessing
    • “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham… Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. (Gen 28:13-15)
  • The reason for the Exodus
    • “So God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them.” (Ex 2:24-25)
  • Why God forgave them after the golden calf incident
    • “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself”. So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people. (Ex 32:13-14)
    • “He has remembered His covenant forever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations, the covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac.” (Ps 105:8-9)
  • The reason for Israel’s success in conquering Canaan
    • So the LORD gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. (Josh 21:43)
  • Why Israel will always rebound from judgment
    • But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham My friend, you whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its remotest parts and said to you, “You are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you.”  (Is 41:8-9)
    • Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? …. Yes, You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. You will give truth to Jacob and unchanging love to Abraham, which You swore to our forefathers from the days of old. (Micah 7:18-20)

Although the Abrahamic Covenant is more often assumed than overtly mentioned after Exodus, at key moments throughout the OT the promises of God to Abraham shine through the storm clouds of Israel’s disobedience, assuring Yahweh’s people of the warmth and light of His ultimate love and blessings.

The Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19-24)

Robert Saucy on its place in God’s overall plan:
“Although the Sinai covenant, like the covenants that followed, is related to the Abrahamic promises, we should note a fundamental difference.  The Davidic and new Covenants are basically elaborations of provisions of the Abrahamic promises, the Sinai covenant, by contrast, being the initial fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise, was added alongside that promise to provide the structure and conditions for its temporal enjoyment.”

Israel’s failure to obey God’s voice was the reason for the destruction and exile of both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel.

  • Hear, O earth: behold, I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their plans, because they have not listened to My words, and as for My law, they have rejected it also. (Jer 6:19)

The Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:9-16)

Kaiser notes: [In God’s promise plan] there was the constant narrowing and making more specific of what the ultimate fulfillment was to be.  It was a sort of election within the election, i.e., a man David from a tribe of Judah, from a nation Israel, from a race of Semites, from the seed of a woman.

As God’s revelation progressed, it became clear that God’s promise to David would be kept, not by a perpetual succession of Davidic kings, but in one Davidic king who would rule perpetually.

  • For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
  • “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.” (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

The New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The inadequacy of the old arrangement to bring mankind to righteous perfection precluded fulfillment.  The new covenant will succeed where the old had failed.  God will finally make his people perfect and bring them into the relationship with him for which they were originally created. 

In both the Old and New Testaments it is the provisions of the new covenant that ultimately provide the solution to the human problem of sin and bring those in the covenant into a final perfect fellowship with God as his sons and daughters. The relationship promised is nothing less than direct, personal fellowship of God with mankind through His Spirit.

For sinners, unhindered participation in the blessings of Abraham requires the internal transformation of the New Covenant.

  • Connected to the Abrahamic Covenant
    • Then the LORD your God will restore you from captivity. The LORD your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply youmore than your fathers.  Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. (Deut 30:3, 5-6)
  • Collaborating with the Davidic Covenant
    • My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances and keep My statutes and observe them. They will live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. (Ezekiel 37:24-27)

The Ultimate Fulfillment of God’s Covenants

  • In the book of Revelation, the never fully obtained blessings of the Mosaic Covenant are provided. (And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them… Rev 21:3)
  • The promises of the Davidic Covenant are fulfilled through the joint reign of the Father and David’s son, the Messiah. (And one of the elders said to me, “Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.” Rev 5:5)
    (There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him …. I, Jesus … am the root and the descendant of David. Rev 22:3, 16)
  • In Revelation, the ultimate purpose of the Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled, as the lost blessings of Eden are restored.
    (Rev 22:2b.  On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.)
  • In Revelation, the New Covenant promise of forgiveness is fulfilled.
    (Rev 22:17  …And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost. (cp. Isaiah 55:1-6)
     

The Abrahamic Covenant reveals that Abraham will be the father of a great nation, Israel, who will serve as the platform for bringing blessings to all nations.  The Davidic Covenant shows that the ultimate King will be a descendant of David who will rule and bless the entire world from Israel.  The New Covenant explains how God will change the hearts of His people and grant His Holy Spirit so they will always obey Him. Each of these covenants works together in harmony to guarantee that God’s kingdom purposes will be fulfilled.

Note!! This exploration is to help you see how the books of Scripture come together, developing a common theme – however, do not use this as an interpretive grid. Instead, notice how the authors keep reaching towards the covenants as they develop various aspects of God’s Kingdom work being done in human lives and history.

Study 16: The Hermeneutics of Proverbs

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7

We are continuing our study on Hermeneutics: the art and science of Biblical Interpretation.

The book of Proverbs is a great study as we begin practicing hermeneutics for a number of reasons:

  1. It comes in neat small sections (sometimes as concise as a single verse) taking some of the intimidation out of tackling an entire book
  2. The context is very clear and self-contained in the book (the wisdom literature, primarily of Solomon instructing his son)
  3. It is probably one of the best books to study with your family in raising children, or for young men facing the decisions of adulthood (after all, it is the art of skillful and wise living in God’s world)
  4. It allows us to consider the principles we’ve been studying, and avoiding the pitfalls of bad hermeneutics – particularly that we do not mis-interpret, sub-interpret or super-interpret, and avoid allegorizing

The Place of Proverbs in the Wisdom Literature

Now remember, the wisdom literature (namely Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) are to be taken together as they bring harmony and balance to the subject. We can sum up the themes of the three as confidenceconfusion, and (apparent) cynicism.

Derek Kidner puts it well: “Between them, the three books clearly cover three aspects of existence which no-one can afford to overlook:  the demands of practical good management; the enigma of calamities that are beyond control or explanation; and the tantalizing hollowness and brevity of human life.”

So the three key wisdom books of the Old Testament must be studied in concert, or the Christian’s understanding of life in God’s world will be dangerously imbalanced: Proverbs is life as it should be; Job, how it sometimes is instead; and Ecclesiastes, the frustration experienced when we are in the midst of the “instead”.

Kidner, again: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning’, or first principle, ‘of wisdom’.  In one form or another this truth meets us in all the wisdom books, and it is this that keeps the shrewdness of Proverbs from slipping into mere self-interest, the perplexity of Job from mutiny, and the disillusion of Ecclesiastes from final despair.”

As Joel James puts it, “the wisdom of Proverbs is accessible—strikingly everyday.  It is popular, not arcane.  Wisdom’s pulpit is the street corner (Prov 1:20), not a lectern at the philosophical society.  More than any other book of the Bible, Proverbs deals with life’s most common and ordinary problems—especially relationship problems.”

Proverbs in light of the Mosaic Law

Proverbs 29:18.  “Where there is no vision (revelation), the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law.”  (see also Prov 28:7, 9)

There are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets, and yet are decisive in personal dealings. Proverbs moves in this realm, asking what a person is like to live with, or to employ; how he manages his affairs, his time and himself.  

To see the relationship of Proverbs with the Law, see how the key themes of Proverbs all find their origin in Deuteronomy:

  1. Wisdom “I have taught you statutes and judgments… So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” (Deut 4:5-6)
  2. God-centered stability and peace (shalom) “You shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you…” (Deut 4:40)
  3. The Fear of the LORD “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!” (Deut 5:29)
  4. The home is the epicentre of spiritual instruction (see Deut 6:7-9; 11:19-20)
  5. The 10 Commandments as much of Proverbs is simply filling out the commands 5-10:
    • family honour and authority
    • respect and kindness toward one’s fellowman
    • marital purity
    • integrity and sharing, rather than grasping and stealing
    • truth-telling in all realms of life
    • the importance of curbing one’s desires (sexual or otherwise) 

Authorship

First Kings 4:32 says that Solomon wrote 3,000 proverbs; moreover, the headings of the book of Proverbs ascribe the majority of the book to him (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1).  Therefore, one can assert with confidence that Solomon was either the author or the compiler of the proverbs contained in this book.

  • Solomon as original author     1-22:16 and 25-29
  • Solomon as compiler               22:17-24 and 30-31

An Outline of Proverbs

1:1-7              Introduction and motto
1:8-9:18       Encouragement to “marry” Lady Wisdom
10-22:16      Various Solomonic proverbs
22:17-24      Thirty sayings of the wise
25-29            Solomonic proverbs complied by Hezekiah’s scribes
30                  The sayings of Agur
31:1-9            The sayings of Lemuel
31:10-31        The celebration of an excellent wife

What is a Proverb?

  • Short, vivid, easily remembered truisms
  • Wisdom in pill form—effective medicine easily swallowed
  • A sermon in one sentence
  • Proverbs are short sentences, drawn from long experience
  • Proverbs are sayings characterised by “shortness, sense, and salt.”

Note: Because of their conciseness, rarely does a single proverb express all that God—or even all that the book of Proverbs—has to say on a given topic.  Therefore, expect to find verifying examples and counter-examples in the book that expand or balance the teaching of individual proverbs.

Axiomatic vs Absolute Proverbs

Proverbs consists of both axiomatic principles and absolute promises.  For example, Proverbs 10:4 “The hand of the diligent makes rich.”  While hard work usually produces financial success, this proverb is not an absolute promise that if one works hard he or she will always become wealthy. One can embrace the truthfulness of Solomon’s observation about the value of diligence without attempting to transform it into an absolute principle. 

Equating a proverb with a promise is a frequent and elemental mistake when interpreting Proverbs.

On the other hand, some Proverbs are absolutely true:  “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (8:13).  That statement is always true, without exception.  Therefore, the interpreter must be able to distinguish Solomon’s purpose for each proverb:  Is it an absolute promise or an axiomatically true observation?

Kidner observes, “‘Many hands make light work’ is not the last word on the subject since ‘too many cooks spoil the broth'”. This is why Solomon can give apparently contradictory advice in successive verses (see Proverbs 26:4-5 “answer not a fool according to his folly… answer a fool according to his folly”!! Different fools and situations require different responses. Clearly it takes wisdom to understand and apply the wisdom of Proverbs!

You can see the axiomatic and absolute in a single verse – for example, speaking of keeping kindness and truth, Prov 3:4 says “…so you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man.” It is always true that kindness and truth find favor before God, but it is only generally true before men.

What is the Purpose of Proverbs?

  1. To teach the Fear of the LORD
    • What the alphabet is to reading, the fear of the LORD is to attaining wisdom in this book (Waltke, the Book of Proverbs)
    • This is what keeps the shrewdness of Proverbs from slipping into mere self-interest (Kidner, the Wisdom of Proverbs)
    • The fear of the LORD includes “…a knowledge of our sinfulness and God’s moral purity, and it includes a clear-eyed knowledge of God’s justice and his anger against sin.  But this worship-fear also knows God’s great forgiveness, mercy, and love.” (Welch, When People are Big and God is Small)
    • The fear of the LORD is a continuum with each component vital to understanding the whole: terror → dread → trembling → astonishment → awe → reverence → devotion → trust → worship3
  2. To teach Practical Daily Wisdom to Believers
    • Some evangelical expositors will feel especially reluctant to preach from Proverbs because they cannot find the announcement of the gospel in this book.  But that must raise another question: Is the sole reason for preaching to bring the good news of salvation in every message? (Kaiser)
  3. To teach Believers how to make Decisions
    • Proverbs is the decision-making book of the Bible, directing those who fear the Lord to make decisions based on principle not panic, driven by wisdom rather than merely by want.
  4. To teach Believers how to Avoid Temptation
    • Proverbs teaches believers to avoid temptation by controlling their thoughts (4:23; 6:25a; 23:7), by avoiding people who are acting sinfully (1:10-11, 15; 22:24), and by avoiding situations where the lure to do evil will be nearly overpowering (5:8; 10:19).
  5. To bring Order, Peace, and Stability to Life
    • Proverbs 1:33, “He who listens to me shall live securely and will be at ease from the dread of evil.”  (see also 6:21-23)

Things to look out for as your study

See key words used in the book, particularly:

  • Wisdom(meaning skillful)
  • Insight (to discern)
  • Naive (where we all start – also translated simple)
  • Fool (someone fixed in their own opinion)
  • Scoffer (the hardened fool, beyond help)

Note key themes:

  • The Law of Consequences (character → conduct → consequences)
  • Biblical change in the principle of “put off, put on” (see Prov 15:1, A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger)
  • Wisdom comes from God and His Word (2:6, 13:13, 21:30)

My hope is that this very practical and helpful book in discipleship (which will immediately be usefully applied) will also provide a fertile field where you can check yourself against the issues of bad interpretation vs right interpretation. Start by identifying a section (in this book, that may be a single proverb), ask questions about context, author and audience and then ask, “is this axiomatic or absolute”? 

As you go through the book, reading the text as “naturally” as possible, you will find that by asking key questions and simple observation, meaning becomes clear and you will gain confidence in interpreting God’s Word. 

The key to understanding the text is found in the text itself as you endeavor to discover the divinely intended meaning of the original author writing to his original audience in their original context!

Study 15: Hermeneutical Detox

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.

Ezra 7:10

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15

We are continuing our study on Hermeneutics: the art and science of Biblical Interpretation.

I’ve decided to start us off with what we could call “hermeneutical detox” to purge ourselves from unhealthy, confusing and downright toxic habits of Bible interpretation and get back to a “normal and natural” reading of the text. 

Remember that as Jesus confronted Pharisees, Sadducees (Matt 22) and even his own disciples (Luke 24), He held them accountable to what the Scriptures taught. He assumed that the text was clear and comprehensible, and they should have all come to the same conclusion. That means Scripture must be objective, and it must have a singular meaning, defensible from the text itself.

This is why our motto must be: what was the divine meaning intended by the original author writing to his original audience in their original context? It should never be “what does this text mean to you” but rather “what did this text mean to the author who wrote it”?

Sadly, we fall into many habits of reading the text in bizarre and unnatural ways. We should be doing exegesis (reading meaning out of the text) and never eisegesis (reading meaning into the text). When doing eisegesis, meaning is determined by the contemporary reader; in exegesis the meaning is determined by the original author and discovered by the contemporary reader.

Avoiding Pitfalls of Bible Interpretation

Three broad categories:

  1. Mis-interpretation: ascribing the wrong meaning to a passage (meaning is A, interpretation is B)
  2. Sub-interpretation: failing to ascertain the full meaning of the passage (meaning is A, B, C, but interpretation is A)
  3. Super-interpretation: attributing more to a passage than was intended (meaning is A, but interpretation is A, B, C)

We have all, no doubt, been guilty of all three to some degree or other. And in some way, we are all somewhere in 2, which is the least of the errors, yet calls us to improve and grow in our understanding and study of Scripture.

If we are to submit to Scripture, it must hold its objective and clear authority over us – and for that, we need to get out of the way!

Seven Pitfalls

1) Proof-texting

This is “using a text to prove a point“. While this may be neutral, it can easily lead to problems, especially when you’ve got a point to prove or a theology to defend, and you start searching through Scripture looking for ammunition. You’re not trying to understand the original author in the context of that verse, but it becomes a bit like the pastor who says “I’ve got a zinger of a sermon, I just need a verse to go with it.” 
When using a verse to make a point, be certain you understand the context and meaning of what the author was communicating in that passage, and make sure you’re not twisting a verse to make a point you need it to make.

2) Allegorizing

Allegorizing is “to search for the hidden or secret meaning underlying the passage – and those hidden meanings are unrelated to the obvious meaning of the passage.” This method of interpretation was popularized (and canonized until the Reformation) by Origen, who developed it initially to explain away what he found strange, uncomfortable or ‘immoral’ in Scripture. He was one of the first to explain away the literal interpretation of Genesis saying “no sensible man would believe Genesis to be literal, it surely was intended to be allegorical” and he spent considerable ink saying the creation account was not to tell us how God created the world, but why (sneaky, sneaky).
Origen went on to create an entire system called the ‘fourfold method’ all about getting past the shallow ‘literal’ interpretation and find the allegorical meaning.
By the time you get to the Reformation, libraries of fanciful interpretations abounded. For example, Gregory the Great said that in the book of Job, the 3 friends represent heretics, Job’s 7 sons are the 12 Apostles (?), the 7000 sheep are innocent thoughts, the 3000 camels are vain notions, etc. etc.
Many of the Reformers explicitly condemned allegorizing and called for a return to a literal reading of the text. After all, allegorizing is arbitrary. It has no objectivity or controls except your imagination. It obscures the meaning of Scripture and strips it of any authority or certainty. 

3) Christologizing

This is a subset of allegorizing – particularly finding “hidden forms of Jesus and His work on the cross in the Old Testament“. Or better said, eiseJesus (reading Jesus into the text). I’m sure you’ve heard someone say the story of David and Goliath represents Jesus taking down the giant of sin and death. 
Justin Martyr said that Genesis 29 taught that Leah represented the Jews, Rachel the church, and Jacob represented Jesus who serves both the Jews and the church.
While this may sound spiritual and ‘Christ exalting’, it is simply subjecting the Scriptures to our imagination, and will yield a Jesus made in our own image.

4) Personalizing

This is “skipping over the author’s intended meaning and looking for some connection to our personal circumstances“. This is not about applying the Word to your life, but skipping over the true meaning of the text and grabbing something that ‘sounds’ like it’s speaking to a circumstance in your life.
This usually happens when people read the Scriptures ‘devotionally’, praying for God to “give them a verse”; not studying but just reading until some phrase or word just connects to something in their life. 
For example, a youth pastor explained that he was just thinking and praying about the issue of dating when he opened his Bible, and his eyes settled on 1 Tim 5:22 “…do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and share in the sins of others…” and he totally ignored the context of appointing elders in a local assembly, and just applied it to his personal situation on dating. 

5) Decontextualizing

This is to “consider something in isolation from its context“. Taking something out of context. 
You could call this ‘fortune-cookie hermeneutics’. You get this verse that is independent, free-floating and unattached to any context. When verses are isolated from their context, becoming a ‘pearl of wisdom’ (or in modern vernacular, a meme) it is no longer grounded in a real person writing to real people in a real context.
Do not attach God’s name to some sentiment you’re experiencing as you read words stripped from their context. For example, many missionary pamphlets quote Psalm 2:8 “Ask of Me and I will surely give the nations as your inheritance and the very ends of the earth as your possession” and claim this is a promise of conversions! Who is being promised the nations in this passage? Messiah, not missionaries.
While Scripture was written for us, it was not initially written to us. For us to understand the divinely intended meaning for our benefit, we must do the work of understanding the original author, the original audience, and the original context.

6) Reading through a lens of:

  • Human Reason
    • During the enlightenment, reason was elevated to the highest place of authority. There are those who read Scripture through a lens of their own reason – if something doesn’t sound ‘reasonable’ to them (morally or scientifically, for example), they simply reject it out of hand, or find ways of explaining it away.
    • Some cannot reconcile the doctrine of election and that we are responsible for our choices and actions, so they either reject the doctrine or redefine it to make it more ‘reasonable’. 
    • The Scripture is not illogical; logic and reason were created by God – but this is the infinite God who created the universe with a word. Our reason (limited and fallen) should not be the authority over Scripture, instead Scripture should correct and shape our reason. When reason fails to reconcile it all – once we have pressed in and deeply studied and considered – let us be humble enough to say, “God is God and I am not; let Him be true and ever man proved a liar (or a fool).”
  • A Theological System
    • When we have a systematic theology (an important and helpful exercise), we may be tempted to interpret a passage through that system. For example, those zealous ‘cage-stage’ Calvinists seem to find the 5 points of Calvinism in every verse. 
    • This often results in ‘right doctrine, wrong verse’. 
    • The problem is that we will not have our theological system challenged, refined or corrected by that passage, instead our theological system governs the interpretation rather than the Scripture correcting the system.
    • Walt Kaiser says “to impose a theological grid onto a text must be condemned as the mark of a foolish and lazy exegete”. 
    • We must have an ‘exegetical theology’ which arises from a deep study of the Scriptures, constantly being refined and even corrected. Follow the text where it leads, and don’t be afraid of where it goes. God’s Word is true and consistent.
  • Continuity and Discontinuity
    • There are certain theological systems that emphasize continuity between Israel and the Church, and others emphasizing discontinuity (for example, covenant and dispensational theology). 
    • Robert Booth, in defending infant baptism, says “our interpretive starting point determines how we understand Scripture… we must strive for interpretational consistency. The Covenantal principle of interpretation holds that we must assume continuity in God’s revelation.”
    • Others go to the radical opposite, assuming discontinuity (for example, Andy Stanley’s campaign to ‘unhitch the church from the Old Testament’).
    • If you put on a lens of continuity, you will miss legitimate points of discontinuity. And likewise, a lens of discontinuity will make you miss points of legitimate continuity. Covenant or Dispensational theology is not a hermeneutic – it may be a post-exegetical conclusion you arrive at, but never start with.
    • Ask, ‘do my lenses prevent me from seeing what the text actually says’?
  • Other Passages of Scripture
    • When cross-referencing, you may be tempted to transfer meaning from one text into another. For example, if you read Mark 8 and the command “take up your cross” and you go over to Romans 6, speaking of the cross of Jesus, you may be tempted to take meaning from one and place it over the other – while they are both mentioning the cross, they are addressing two entirely different issues.
    • Compare Romans 4:1-5 and James 2:14-16, is Paul using the word “justified” the same way James does? Getting this wrong may lead to a false view of salvation!
  • Culture
    • We live in a very different culture to the biblical authors – separated by geography, ethnicity and time. The temptation may be to read my own culture into Scripture.
    • For example, when you encounter the term ‘slave’ in the Bible, you may transfer a cultural understanding of slavery into that term which is entirely different to what you may think. Indentured servanthood in the Old Testament is utterly different to the chattel slavery of the 18th century.
    • Perhaps you read Genesis through the lens of a cultural view of origins, ie. evolution. That will destroy your understanding of the text.
  • Your own intuition
    • If you read the Bible just following your gut, those impressions you get while reading, your ‘moral intuition’ and what ‘feels right’, you are interpreting by your own intuition.
    • Clark Pinnock wrote “I reject the traditional view of hell in part out of a sense of moral and theological revulsion to it – and this is probably the reason people question the traditional view in the first place. They are not impressed by its lack of Scriptural basis, instead they are appalled by its moral implications.” If your (fallen) moral intuition is your interpretive lens, you will create your own personal theology.
  • Personal Experience
    • Perhaps you’re facing a critical decision in your life, you may be tempted to open your Bible with one overriding goal: give me guidance!! You may be bringing a question on your mind to a passage that the author was not addressing.
    • Some interpret the Scripture through charismatic experiences. For example, they do not interpret 1 Corinthians 12-14 (where Paul addresses the charismatic gifts, especially tongues) with the Biblical Acts 2 definition (tongues are understandable human languages miraculously spoken by a person who had not learned them). Instead, they simply assume the experience of ecstatic speech they experienced in church last week is what Paul is talking about.
    • A Charismatic University has a statement “a man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with a biblical argument”. And they intend that as a good thing!
    • We don’t deny experiences, or read our experiences into Scripture – instead, we are to interpret that experience by what Scripture says. What is objective? The Word. So let’s look at what the Scripture teaches about tongues, and from that understanding see what this experience actually was.

7) Interpreting the OT with the NT

This is quite controversial in theological circles. For example, in McCartney and Clayton’s handbook on hermeneutics, they write “to understand the Old Testament properly, it must be read through the lens of the New Testament.” Roy Zuck, on the other hand, says “Recognizing the progress of revelation, the interpreter must be careful not to read back into the Old Testament from the New.”
Zuck is right. We cannot take NT truth and read it into the OT text to change the meaning originally intended by the author to his original audience.
If we affirm that the whole Scripture is ultimately authored by God, and it is all one consistent and coherent truth – nothing will contradict. However, if meaning changes over time, Scripture is no longer consistent. Worse, if you need the NT to properly understand the OT, what about those poor people who originally got the OT text? They could not understand what was given to them until they had the key hundreds, or even thousands of years later!
When Jesus said “have you not read”, He assumed the text was clear to them!
Think of the progress of revelation – for example, the prophecies of Messiah – as a line of prophets. As we move from that initial promise in Genesis 3 (the seed of the woman shall crush the head of the serpent), we learn more and more about the promised Messiah… he’ll be from the tribe of Judah, born in Bethlehem, in the line of David, and He will suffer and be killed before rising to his glorious throne.
It is as if each prophet came and supplemented a painting with more and more detail and color until the full revelation of Messiah would be seen. They never erased or changed what came before. They didn’t flip over the canvas and say, “see, you thought it was a mountain, but it’s actually a face!” 
Unless we understand the text in its original context and time, it is easy to read into it things never intended by the author, resulting in mis-interpretation or super-interpretation.

That leaves us bereft of the divinely intended meaning of the original author writing to his original audience in their original context. 

Let us never assume that God is a poor communicator. He gave us the Scriptures by His divine design and we must embrace it (its context, its progress of revelation, its cultural and historical background) for what it is: the very Word of God!

Study 14: Hermeneutics Introduction

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.

Ezra 7:10

…just as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

We are now embarking on a new study! Hermeneutics: the art and science of Biblical Interpretation.

Why should you study the Bible? A couple observations:

  1. It is commanded and commended (2 Tim 2:15, Psalm 119)
  2. It is the means of your sanctification (John 17:17)
  3. It is the way the Holy Spirit exposes our hearts (Heb 4:12)
  4. You are to have Biblical convictions, not derived convictions (Rom 14:5, 22-24)
  5. It is your duty to raise your children in the instruction of the Lord (Deut 6:4-9, Eph 6:4) 
  6. You are to shepherd your wife in the Scriptures (Eph 5:26)
  7. Biblical maturity develops discernment (Heb 5:11-14) 
  8. It will equip you for evangelism and apologetics (1 Peter 3:15) 
  9. It is the source of the believer’s reviving, wisdom, joy, insight, power and truth (Psalm 19:7-11)
  10. Studying the Word will stir up spiritual interaction with fellow believers and motivate you in evangelism.

As 2 Peter 3:16 warns, there are those who distort (twist a statement as to make it mean a falsehood) the Scriptures – those who are unstable and untaught. The first part of our study in godliness has had its purpose to make you stable in the faith. We’re shifting gears now, turning to the work of training you to be able to understand the God-intended meaning of Scripture.


What does this verse mean to you? It had better mean what it meant before you existed!

Gordon Fee notes, “The Scripture cannot mean now what it did not mean then.” and John MacArthur, “The meaning of Scripture is the Scripture.”

Let us have Ezra as our pattern:
“Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”

  1. Study (this is to examine and make inquiry to discover the true meaning of the text)
  2. Practice (applying the truth and principle from the Scripture with obedience and submission)
  3. Teach (here is the goal – yet it can only happen if the first two have been diligently done)

Said another way, to study is about extracting meaning and to practice is to draw out the various applications of the truth you have discovered. Themeaning is ancient, the application is contemporary. The interpretation of the text arrives at a singular meaningapplication draws out a plurality of application.

So, the goal of biblical interpretation is to discover the divinely intended meaning that was communicated:

  • by the original author
  • to the original audience
  • in the original context

Said another way, the goal of hermeneutics is to get the authorial intent. What did the original author intend his original audience to understand by the words he was communicating to them?

Think of it – we’re living in the 21’st century. We have to essentially time travel across to another land, another culture, another context so we can rightly come to the meaning in the text. Some passages will be harder than other to do this, and some will require a lot of work to build enough context – but here is the point: unless you get to know what the original author was communicating to his original audience in their original context, there is no way you can know that the meaning you’ve arrived at is correct.

For example, 2 Chronicles 7:14 says “if My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, I will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

This has been used to motivate massive prayer meetings with the goal of claiming God’s promise to “heal our land”. Is this the legitimate application of this passage? Is anyone asking the question, could this promise have had a very particular intention to a very particular people (namely, the nation of Israel) in relation to a very particular context (the blessings and curses found in the final third of Deuteronomy) which held very particular physical promises intended for that theocratic nation.

If you do not understand the original intended meaning of the passage, you will not be able to rightly apply that passage in your context. Will you be able to apply 2 Chronicles 7:14 to your life today? Absolutely. But that application can only be legitimate if it is based on an accurate understanding of the original meaning of the text.

The true meaning of Scripture is not found in the subjective impression of the contemporary reader, but rather in the objective intention of the original author. 


The meaning of Scripture first existed in the mind of God, that meaning was communicated through the human author and is contained in the text:

  • it is fixed and unchanging
  • it is objective and intelligible
  • it exists in the text apart from the human interpreter
  • the job of the interpreter is simply to discover the objective, intelligible, fixed and unchanging meaning contained in that text. 

Again, the goal of biblical interpretation is to discover the divinely intended meaning that was communicated by the original author, to the original audience, in the original context.  Why? Because meaning has authority, application does not. Meaning is unchanging and objective, application is subjective and changes from person to person.

My hope is that you will be better equipped to open God’s Word and approach it with confidence, knowing with certainty that this is what God intended to communicate through this passage. Because its meaning is certain and clear to me now, I must submit my life to it and apply it with wisdom. And I can then teach it to those in my sphere of influence with the boldness of a lion!