Rules for biblical interpretation, continued from yesterday.
vi. Note the presence of parallelisms in the Bible
The Bible contains three types of parallelisms:
¨ Synonymous parallelism occurs when different lines or passages present the same idea in a slightly altered manner, e.g.
- A false witness will not go unpunished,
and he who pours out lies will not go free. (Prov 19:5)
- Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; (Ps 95:6)
¨ Antithetic parallelism occurs when two parts are set up in contrast with each other. They may say the same thing, but say it by way of negation, e.g.
- A wise son heeds his father’s instruction,
but a mocker does not listen to rebuke. (Prov 13:1)
- Lazy hands make a man poor,
but diligent hands bring wealth. (Prov 10:4)
¨ In synthetic parallelism, the first part creates a sense of expectation which is completed by the second part. It can also progress into a conclusion in a third part, e.g.
- For surely your enemies, O LORD,
surely your enemies will perish;
all evildoers will be scattered. (Ps 92:9)
- Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5:42)
- Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matt 7:7)
Recognising parallelisms can help clear a number of issues, such as the following passage in the King James version:
That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else.
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (Isaiah 45:6-7)
Doesn’t it clearly say that God creates evil? Wouldn’t that make Him the author of sin? By recognising the presence of antithetic parallelism, we can reach a correct interpretation of the passage. Light is contrasted with darkness, and peace with evil. The point of the passage is that God brings well-being and peace to a godly people and calamity to those who aren’t.
Similarly, in the Lord’s prayer Jesus taught His disciples to say “Lead us not into temptation” (Matt 6:13). Is this suggesting that God would try to entice us to sin, thus contradicting James 1:13? Examining the whole sentence we find synonymous parallelism: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.
vii. Note the difference between proverb and law
Proverbs are designed to express practical truisms, and do not reflect moral laws that are to be applied absolutely to every conceivable life situation. For example, “Look before you leap” contradicts “He who hesitates is lost”. We can’t make both sayings absolute, or else we’d have to conclude that “He who hesitates to look before he leaps is lost!”
The same thing can happen in interpreting the Bible. Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” (Matt 12:30) and “[W]hoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50). How can both be true? We know that in some circumstances, silence implies consent and in other situations it is indicative of opposition.
So, it is good to distinguish between proverb and law; it is also important to distinguish between the different types of law. In the Bible we find apodictic and casuistic law.
- Apodictic expresses absolutes and follows a direct personal form, as seen in the 10 commandments, “You shall…” and “You shall not…”
- Casuistic law is expressed in the “if…then” form, e.g. Exodus 23:4 “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him.” This explicitly covers oxen and donkeys, but what about cows and camels? Casuistic law gives the principle by example, but the principle has a wider realm of application. In this case, it would cover cows, camels, chicken, horses, etc.
viii. Observe the difference between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law
The Pharisees were masters at keeping the letter of the law while violating the spirit, i.e. they were legalists. Legalism includes, but isn’t limited to, adding rules and regulations beyond what God has commanded and attributing divine authority to them. One can also distort the law by trying to obey the spirit while ignoring the letter of the law. This is called antinomianism.
In Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, His point was that the law has a wider application than its letter. If you murder someone you violate the letter; if you hate someone you violate the spirit of the law. Both murder and anger are sins, but they aren’t equal in the results they produce or in the punishment they deserve.
ix. Be careful with parables
An important question to ask oneself is: Did Jesus use parables to clarify His teaching or to obscure it? A key passage to understanding this is found in Mark 4:10-12
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
” ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’
This has echoes of Isaiah 6:8-13. In a way, the people’s not understanding is a form of punishment: they didn’t want to listen to God, so He took away their capacity to hear Him.
Jesus often said “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”, which implies that not everyone hearing His words hears them in the sense He intends. Hence, there is an element of concealment in Jesus’ use of parables. The parables were meant to be understood by those open to them; however, often Jesus’ enemies had enough understanding of them to be infuriated.
Allegory presents another problem. Jesus explains the parable of the sower in an allegorical fashion. Treating all parables as allegories results in mass confusion. It is therefore best to avoid allegorizing except where the NT clearly indicates it.
x. Be careful with predictive prophecy
There exists a broad spectrum for interpreting prophecy, from those who virtually eliminate its existence; to those who claim that the prophecy was inserted after its fulfillment; up to those who insist that all biblical prophecy must be fulfilled to the letter, leaving no room for symbolic predictions.
To understand the last group, we can say that the OT prophecies of Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem were fulfilled to the letter. The return of Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6) was fulfilled on a broader scale by the coming of John the Baptist. John the Baptist wasn’t Elijah himself, but he came in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17).
Apocalyptic prophecy is the hardest to interpret, since it features a high degree of symbolic imagery that may or may not be interpreted for us readers. Examples of apocalyptic prophecy are founding the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation.
These rules don’t cover every possible problem one may come across in studying Scripture. They do offer help in recognizing and resolving special problems in the Bible, thus saving us many hours of confusion.