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Part 2

The art of interpreting Scripture

Interpreting Genres

The Art of Interpreting Scripture

1. Introduction

When it comes to interpreting Scripture, it is important to notice the style of writing and the genre used in the writing, for it will bear upon the way the specific writing needs to be interpreted. It is no use interpreting passages that fall into the symbolic genre as literal. You will start believing in horses that fly. It is no use taking history and interpreting it as doctrine, since that will lead to believing that a work of God is identified by how long it is around.

[38] So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; [39] but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" So they took his advice, (Ac 5:38-39 ESV)

This is a historical account of what Gamaliel told the Jewish council concerning this new “faith.” Many today have exactly the same attitude concerning all kinds of groups. Most notably the Word-of-Faith (WOF) movement led by men such as Kenneth Copeland and also the Toronto Blessing (TB) led by men such as John Arnott. Should we take what Gamaliel said as a way of testing a work’s validity whether it is from God or not? Definitely not! Then we have to conclude that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and the Roman Catholic Institution are works of God, since they have been around for much longer than WOF and TB!

2. Genres

2.1 Types

2.1.1 The validity of types as a method of hermeneutics

According to Ramm there are three reasons why typology is a Biblical discipline of hermeneutics.

(1). The general relationship which the Old Testament sustains to the New is the very basis for such a study. The strong prophetic element in the Old Testament establishes a real and vital nexus1 [connection] between the two Testaments. The fact of prophecy establishes the principle that the New is latent in the Old, and that the Old is patent [obvious] in the New.2

(2). Our Lord’s own use of the Old Testament is His invitation to us to find Him in the Old Testament. In Luke 24:25-44 Christ teaches the disciples about Himself, beginning at Moses and following through all the Scriptures.3

(3). Even more specific is the vocabulary of the New Testament with reference to the nature of the Old. The following words are used in the New of the Old. Hypodeigma means a sign suggestive of anything, a representation, a figure, a copy, an example. Typos and typikos (from the verb, typtō, “to strike”) mean the mark of a blow, the figure formed by a blow, an impression, a form, a letter, a doctrine, an example, a pattern, a type. Skia (from skēnē, a tent) means a shade, a sketch, an outline, an adumbration [a general idea of something without details]. Parabolē means a placing by the side, hence a comparison, a likeness, a similitude. Eikon means an image, a figure, a likeness. Antitypon means a repelling blow, an echoing, a reflecting, a thing formed after a pattern, a counterpart, an antitype. Allegoreō means to tell a truth in terms of a narrative.4

2.1.2 Principles of using types

First, however, when a person uses the typical method of interpretation, it should be noted that types should be seen in the Old Testament only when the New Testament has noted them as types directly. Types should also be seen in the Old Testament only when the context of the New Testament clearly guides us toward seeing a type in the Old Testament.

Second, we should not attempt to prove doctrine from types unless that doctrine is explicitly endorsed in the New Testament.

Third, the typology of the New Testament should be recognised and studied to find out how it treats the typology in question.

Fourth, the typical and accidental should be discovered in any given type. The New Testament must be considered as to what is typical. Therefore, as an example, a good interpreter will control himself with regard to so-called types in the Tabernacle. Every single element in the Tabernacle does not have an equivalent counterpart in the New Testament.

2.2 Prophecy

In fact, using the Prophets in this way [as though prediction of future events far into the future was the Prophets main concern] is highly selective. Consider in this connection the following statistics: Less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less than 5 percent specifically describes the New Covenant age. Less than 1 percent concerns events yet to come.5

From this point on it will be greatly beneficial to use the five (5) points as discussed by Ramm6 concerning the interpretation of Biblical prophecy:

2.2.1 Fundamentals

It does not matter what our millennial views are, we still need to keep to the fundamental principles of exegesis in the prophetic books and passages. Language

The language of the prophetic passage needs careful attention. The meaning and significance of proper names, customs, fauna and flora, events, geography, etc. should be determined. Figures of speech should also be carefully noted. Prophetic language is more or less figurative at all times. Even certain phrases that are used multiple times do not always have the same meaning in the different passages where they are used. A place name that is so familiar to us, Arabia, will eventually lead us astray hermeneutically if we assume that the Bible always speaks of the same geographical area. It does sometimes refer to different areas. The same goes for Babylon. Especially as it is used in the book of Revelation. Historical background

The historical background of the prophet and the prophecy are both important. In order to understand what the prophet meant at the time, political manoeuvres and captivities of the time need to be understood. Context

In studying prophecy, it would be better to forget about chapter and verse in order to follow the natural flow of prophetic books. The flow of discussion is important and the recipients of the current discourse are important. For instance, in order to understand Mal 3:8-11, we need to go back to Mal 2:1 to pick up on who this passage was written to and to understand the whole context! Non-Systematic

Prophecy is not written to be a systematic discourse for us to make complete sense of, as it would be written in a systematic theology textbook. The prophets were not writing as academia, but rather were visionaries carrying along the message of God and from God. They would frequently write the future as the past and the past as the future. In among all this the present will also find its place. Parallel passages

In order to find parallel passages in prophetic writings it would be necessary to scour the entire corpus of prophetic literature in the Bible to find these parallel passages.

2.2.2 Essence

This would be the innermost characteristic or nature of the prophetic passage at hand.7 Predictive/Didactic

Note whether the prophet wrote the passage as predictive or didactic material. Didactic material cannot be interpreted in the same way as predictive material and vice versa. Conditional/Unconditional

Not all prophetic passages are clear whether the prophecies in question are conditional or not. If this is not clear, then to base some prophetic doctrine on such a passage would be foolish. Fulfilled/Unfulfilled

In this regard it is important to search the New Testament for the fulfilment of prophecies. If such a passage can be found in the New Testament then both the Old and New Testament passages should be studied. Some prophecies in the Old Testament have also been fulfilled in the Old Testament.

2.2.3 Fulfilment Historical fulfilment

If the prophecy in question had already been fulfilled, then the text that contains the prophecy with the materials of the fulfilment should be studied together. In prophetic language, things that are far apart chronologically may appear as if they are close together. These types of “illusions” are solved in the fulfilment. Prophecies can either be very clearly fulfilled (1 Ki 17:1) or it could be cryptic (Gen 3:15) or symbolic (Zech 5:5-11). Unfulfilled

In cases where prophecies have been unfulfilled, we need to proceed with great caution.

Interpreters should be cautious in the interpretations proposed for unfulfilled prophecy, for these examples demonstrate that in some instances little can be gained about the manner of fulfilment from the prophecy itself.8

The essence of the prophecy must be discovered. Is it about Israel, Judah, the Messiah, etc? Is the fulfilment meant to be before or after Christ’s coming? Is it local, temporal or cultural? Multiple fulfilment

In multiple fulfilment we mean that an Old Testament prophecy contains a local fulfilment in the Old Testament as well as fulfilment in the New Testament.

2.2.4 Meaning

In order to control the interpretation of prophecy so that it is prevented from becoming something that it definitely is not, we need to start with the literal meaning of prophetic passages. What this means is that the prophet meant Zion where he used Zion and Canaan where he used Canaan. However, there are times when symbolism is used in prophecy. Most scholars today would agree that when John used Babylon in the book of Revelation he did not mean Babylon as the historical city. The same can be true of other places and things.

Neither symbolism nor literalism should be forced in interpreting prophecy. Each passage should stand on its own. Literal interpretation is simply the departure point. We should interpret prophecy in a literal sense unless the New Testament implicitly or explicitly suggests we interpret it typologically.

2.3 Parables

The parables mostly called forth a response. That which the Lord wanted to bring across required a response. However, many times when we want to understand the parables, we need to know a little more about the times they were told. When Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed, what did He really mean?

How do we interpret parables?

2.3.1 Perspective

We need to put the parables into its proper perspective. That is, we need to understand them in their relation to the kingdom of God and how they related to the King, Jesus Christ.

We need to understand that it is the Christ, the King, teaching about His kingdom. The parables are an integral part of the Kingdom and its message.

The parables taught that the kingdom was at hand and yet also that the kingdom was eschatological.

2.3.2 Cultural

Even though the eternal perspective of the parables is that of the King (Christ) and His kingdom, we also need to see that they were told with real historical and cultural backgrounds. Christ lived among Jews in Palestine and it is with that in mind that He told His parables. Christ used the everyday known materials of the day to tell His parables.

2.3.3 Exegesis

First, find that one central truth which the Lord is teaching in the parable. Typical parables attempt to bring across one single point. Parables are not allegories in which each element has some meaning in the story.

Second, we need to ascertain how much of the parable has already been interpreted by Christ Himself.

Third, note any clues in the context as to the meaning of the parable.

Fourth, compare the parable with the Old Testament to find any association and also with the other gospels which include the same parable (note differences, parallels, synonyms, etc).

2.3.4 Doctrine

To discover doctrine in the parables it is important to observe the historical sense of the parable. Parables do teach doctrine, however, it is improper to read theological issues into parables.

2.4 The Psalms

The Psalms are frequently misapplied since they are frequently misunderstood. Interpretive difficulties in the Psalms come when we forget to remember that the Psalms were written from man to God.

The Psalms were written as poetry, prayers and hymns, and therefore were not meant as doctrinal treatises. The Psalms help us express ourselves to God and to help us consider His ways.

2.4.1 Poetry

First, the Psalms are Hebrew poetry expressed through the heart to the mind. It would be foolish to try and find special meanings in each word since the Psalms make use of what is called Hebrew parallelism. In Hebrew parallelism the second line in a grouping of two sentences simply repeats and reinforces the sense of the first line. Ps 19:1-2 is an example of this.

[1] THE heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
[2] Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.

Second, we need to keep in mind that the Psalms are musical poems. It would be inconsistent with the Psalms to read them in the same way as an epistle or historical narrative. The Psalms appeal to the emotions.

Third, poetic vocabulary is purposefully metaphorical.9 It is, therefore, important to ascertain the purpose of the metaphor.

Distinguishing poetry from prose is another important factor of Bible Interpretation. About thirty percent of the Old Testament is written in poetry. Most older versions such as the King James Version doesn’t [sic] indicate these differences between prose and poetry. Newer versions such as New International Version, New Living Translation, and New English Bible are using different formats in writing prose from poetry. You will notice such differences by looking at the narrative book of Genesis and the poetical book of Psalms in these newer versions.

Since poetry is concerned with emotions rather than the accurate descriptions of the message, it uses more figurative language more [sic] than prose. With proper understanding, poetry is just as comprehensible as prose and they are [sic] easier to be memorized.

There are common features of poetry called parallelism, and you need to recognized [sic] them to help understands [sic] the main point of the poetry.
  • Synonymous parallelism. A line strengthen [sic], develop [sic], reinforces or repeat [sic] the line before it.
    Matthew 7:7-8

    7 Ask, and it shall be given you;
    seek, and ye shall find;
    knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
    8 For every one that asketh receiveth;
    and he that seeketh findeth;
    and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (KJV)

    Isaiah 44:22a

    I have swept away your offenses like a cloud,
    your sins like the morning mist.(NIV)

  • What we have in Matthew 7:7-8 are not 3 steps or different types of prayer. They are simply different ways of saying the same thing. The verses are simply expressing that "God answers our prayer " by way of synonymous parallelism.

  • Antithetical parallelism. The most common parallelism in the Bible, where a line contrast [sic] the message or the point of the line before it.
    Psalms 37:21

    The wicked borrow and do not repay,
    but the righteous give generously. (NIV)

    Proverbs 10:1

    A wise son maketh a glad father:
    but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother. (KJV)

  • Synthetic parallelism. A line goes further than just repeating or reinforcing but by providing more information on the line before it.
    Psalms 14:2

    The Lord looks down from heaven on the son of men
    to see if there are any who understand,
    any who seek God. (NIV)

    Obadiah 21

    And saviours shall come up on mount Zion
    to judge the mount of Esau;
    and the kingdom shall be the LORD'S.10

2.4.2 Literature

First, there are different types of Psalms.
  • Laments (Individual – 3, 22, 31, 39, 42, 57, 71, 120, 139, 142; Corporate – 12, 44, 80, 94, 137).
  • Thanksgiving (Individual – 18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138; Corporate – 65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 136).
  •  Salvation history (78, 105, 106, 135, 136).
  • Praise hymns (8, 19, 33, 66, 100, 103, 104, 111, 113, 114, 117, 145, 146, 147, 148, 149).
  • Celebration & affirmation (Covenant renewal – 50, 81; Davidic covenant – 89, 132; Royal – 2, 18—THANKSGIVING, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 144—LAMENT; Enthronement – 24, 29, 47, 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99; Songs of Zion – 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122).
  • Wisdom (36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128, 133).
  • Songs of trust (11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125, 131).
Second, each Psalm of a particular type also has its own particular form.

Third, each of the types of the Psalms also has a particular function.

Fourth, each Psalm should be read as a unit.

2.5 Wisdom literature

Three books in the Bible are recognised as being in this category: Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and Job.

When misused, [] can provide a basis for selfish, materialistic, short-sighted behavior—just the opposite of what God intended.11

2.5.1 Abuse

Wisdom literature has been abused in many ways in the past.

First, people tend to read these books only in part and as a result cannot see the intended message of the book by the original inspired author. People have taken bits and pieces out of these books to sound wise, but have many times misapplied these bits and pieces.

One of the more common mistakes in interpreting these books is neglecting the whole context. It is very common for us to pick a verse or two with an instruction that sounds good without considering the surrounding context or the theme that the author intended. Doing so will cause us to misunderstand the teaching, and in the worse situation [sic] we will end up believing a bad advise [sic] as a teaching of wisdom. Without paying attention on [sic] the context you will miss the line of argument in a wisdom discourse.

Proverbs should be read with care. They shouldn't be taken as doctrinal statement [sic] for they are written to be easily memorize [sic], and often they are in "figure of speech". Proverbs are not laws, prophecies or promises. We shouldn't take proverbs as a guarantee of successful life, but rather guidelines for everyday living. Exceptions of [sic] the proverbs doesn't make it a false statement, because it is not given as a guaranteed formula but a general observation of truth. Many of the proverbs are hyperbolic or an exaggeration form of speech so we need to understand them properly. (see Hyperbole)

Example: Proverbs 13:25 The godly eat to their heart contents, but the belly of the wicked goes hungry. (NLT) Just by looking around today and the story of Lazarus and the rich man proved that such proverb is not a guarantee.12

Second, terms, categories, styles and modes—in wisdom literature—have been misunderstood by people.

Third, the line of an argument in wisdom literature has often been misunderstood.

2.5.2 Proverbial guidelines

Here are some guidelines as to how the book of Proverbs should be handled:
  • Proverbs are often parabolic, i.e., figurative, pointing beyond themselves.
  • Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
  • Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
  • Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behavior—just the opposite!
  • Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning.
  • Proverbs are not guarantees from God, but poetic guidelines for good behavior.
  • Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any of a variety of literary techniques to make their point.
  • Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life, but are not exhaustive in their coverage.
  • Wrongly used, proverbs might justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.13
D. A. Carson, in his excellent work on fallacies on the exegetical level wrote:

One of the most common errors preachers make in the area of literary genre occurs in their handling of Proverbs. A proverb is neither a promise nor case law. If it is treated that way, it may prove immensely discouraging to some believers when things do not seem to work out as the “promise” seeks to suggest.14

2.6 Narrative

Narrative is the single most common literary type in the Bible with 40% of the Old Testament as narrative. In the Old Testament, the following books are largely composed of narrative: Genesis, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, and Haggai.15 The following Old Testament books contain large portions of narrative: Exodus, Numbers, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Job.16 Large portions of the gospels and almost all of Acts are narrative in the New Testament. Narratives show us God at work among His people, in His creation, toward the unfolding of His salvation plan.

2.6.1 Old Testament and general narrative Three levels

Narrative is told on three levels. These levels have nothing to do with hidden meanings and various allegories.

The first level is the whole universal plan of God contained in the whole of the Bible. This level is built upon the major doctrines of the Bible: creation, fall of man and the power of sin, the need of salvation, the Incarnation and the solution in the death of Christ.

The second level centres on Israel or God’s people. This will include the creation of Israel from Abraham’s call through Israel’s travels and hardships and the demise of the northern kingdom and of Judah, and the restoration of Israel after the exile.

The final level includes the many shorter narratives that make up the first and second levels. Every individual smaller Old Testament narrative is part of the first two levels. Wrong ideas about Old Testament narratives

  • Old Testament narratives are not just stories about people who lived thousands of years ago. These narratives are about God foremost, and His dealings to and through people. It can be said with conviction that the narratives of the Bible are divine narratives.
  • Old Testament narratives are not stories filled with hidden meanings that must be looked for. They are not allegories. Biblical narratives do not answer all our questions concerning the narrative and were not intended to. We should therefore not attempt to read into these narratives what they do not tell us clearly.
  • Old Testament narratives are not always in the Bible as teaching tools. This means that these narratives do not all teach us directly. They are not intended to be theological discourses or doctrinal treatises.
  • Individual events in narratives or each individual narrative does not have its own moral to the story. The whole narrative—or larger narrative—must be studied to find the true moral to the story. Help with narratives

We must interpret and see the meaning of the narratives as a part of the theme of the book. This is how we can read a particular narrative in its context, by treating smaller narrative [sic] as part of a bigger narrative. The story of David and Goliath is part of the story of King David, and King David is part of the story of the nation of Israel, and the nation of Israel is part of the main story of the Bible, which is God's salvation plan for all men.

We must focus on the main message of the narrative and not be distracted with matters mentioned in the narrative. When we read stories where angels are mentioned we must not get carried away with trying to understand about angels. Angels are mentioned in the narrative, but the message of the narrative is not about explaining angels to us.

We must not conclude that because it happened in the biblical narrative it should or must happen to us also. Be careful with assuming that a narrative has a message, specially for our situation. Like saying that the story of the Israelites crossing the red sea confirms to you that you do not really need to learn how to swim. We cannot assume that there is always a "moral" to learn in every single narrative. Remember, a narrative can be a part of a bigger narrative where the main theme should be taken.17

3. Conclusion

It should not be necessary for me to reiterate that we should not assume what the text says, but actually study the text to discover what it says. It should also not be necessary for me to remind you that we cannot interpret prophecy as a theological discourse such as the book of Romans. Genres in the Bible should not be mixed when interpreted. Finally, do not read your own ideas into the text, but rather let the text speak for itself. This naturally can only be done in context.

A text without a context is a pretext.


[1] An important connection between the parts of a system or a group of things.
[2] Ramm, Bernard, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Thirteenth Printing, December 1982, p215-216.
[3] Ramm, p216-217.
[4] Ramm, p217.
[5] Fee, Gordon D. & Stuart, Douglas, How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, A Guide to Understanding the Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1982, p150.
[6] Ramm, p245ff.
[7] Ramm, p250.
[8] Ramm, p251.
[9] Fee, p172.
[10] BotB, Unfortunately I do not know where I downloaded this information from. I downloaded this whole website for later study, and now I cannot remember where from. The title of the site is “Basics of the Bible.”
[11] Fee, p187.
[12] BotB
[13] Fee, p203.
[14] Carson, D. A., Exegetical Fallacies, Second Edition, Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Third Printing, January 1998, p137.
[15] Fee, p73.
[16] Fee, p73.
[17] BotB

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