I was lucky to be able to listen to 7 lectures by Wayne Grudem on “how to interpret the Bible” (2010). The following information is from the notes I took in class.
10 Rules for Interpreting the Bible
- The three most important rules are: Read it (as opposed to reading books about the Bible).
- Read it again. (The Bible was written in ordinary language for everyone to understand.)
- Read it in detail (Pay attention to the text).
- The interpretation of Scripture is an ordinary process (not magical). Scripture was written in the ordinary words of the day. There are no secret meanings or codes.
- Every interpreter has only four sources of information about the text: 1) the meaning of individual words; 2) the context; 3) the teaching of the whole Bible; and 4) historical and cultural background information.
- You must be able to give reasons for your understanding and thereby attempt to persuade others (as opposed to “I just feel it means this”).
- The meaning must be consistent with what the original author meant to communicate to the original hearers.
- There is only one meaning for each text, though there may be many applications. That one meaning may be complex.
- If you’re preparing a bible study, use the time you have. Don’t get discouraged by thinking it must be a long and complicated study. Don’t quit because you don’t have “enough” time.
- Pray for the Holy Spirit’s to enable you to understand Scripture rightly.
5 Big Picture Questions to ask of every text
The Bible is a historical document about God. Therefore it’s important to always ask:
- Where are we in biblical history? (Know the basic timeline and where your passage fits).
- What did the original author want the original readers to understand?
- What does the text tell us about God?
- What does this text tell us about God’s plan for redemption and His Messiah, Jesus Christ?
- What application did the original author want his original readers to make to their lives?
32And David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” 34But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, 35I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. 36Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you!” 38Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, 39and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” So David put them off. 40Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine. 41And the Philistine moved forward and came near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” 45Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hand.” 48When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground. 50So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David. 51Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. – 1 Samuel 17:32-51
What did the original author want his readers to think about when they read about the armor and the stones?
Without asking this question, you might be tempted to look at David trying on Saul’s armor in 1Samuel 17:38-40 and be tempted to “fanciful allegory.”
Fanciful allegory: Saul’s sword is like liberal theology that will let you down and mislead you. Saul’s armor is occult practices like going to psychics and fortune tellers who will weigh you down in life. The 5 smooth stones are five elements of successful ministry (e.g. prayer, worship, Bible reading, fasting and sound doctrine). Or if you’re more charismatic, the 5 smooth stones are the 5-fold manifestations of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:110. Or if you’re a Calvinist, the 5 stones David defeated Goliath with are clearly the 5-points of Calvinism. If you’re an army chaplain, you know the 5 stones are the 5 sides of the pentagon that keep us safe from the “Goliaths” that might attack us, etc.
These are fanciful allegories because the original author could not possibly have wanted his original readers to understand any of these ideas when they read about Saul’s armor and the five stones.
The author thought Saul’s sword meant Saul’s sword and the five stones were five stones.
What does this story tell us about God?
The point is NOT something like ‘David had courage, therefore we should have courage.’ That treats the story as a moralistic tale. The text tells us that David trusted in God and God gave him courage (1Samuel 17:26; 1Samuel 17:37; 1Samuel 17:45-47). The point is not that David is brave, the point is that “all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel (1Samuel 17:46)” and the “battle is the Lord’s (1Samuel 17:47).
God chose a man after His own heart to be king of Israel and David is going to become king. God empowered David to defeat the most powerful enemy of God’s people, Goliath. He is still faithful to protect and empower His people for whatever tasks He calls them to. No earthly power could stand against the Lord (note the descriptions of Goliath’s size & strength); we can trust the power of God.
What do we learn about God’s plan for redemption?
David trusted God to the point of putting his own life on the line. His greatest descendant will do the same. God will empower His coming Messiah to defeat the greatest enemy of God’s people: sin and death. No earthly power will be able to stand against God’s Messiah, just as Goliath could not stand against God’s servant, David.
How did the author want his readers to respond?
The author tell us that David trusted in the Lord to protect him and to work through the abilities and weapons God gave him (1Samuel 17:34-37). Since the author tells us that David trusted in Lord, it seems likely he wants his readers to also trust in the Lord to protect them and look to David as an example.
If you want to have confidence in your application, first ask: what application did the author expect his original readers to make?