Reading to Understand Requires Help
If you were reading Shakespear, it would be helpful for you to understand some necessary background material to comprehend what the piece of literature means (See: Shakespeare’s World). The same is true for reading the Bible. So, it follows that everyone who reads the Bible needs to have help because you are reading an ancient document with an ancient worldview.
When you finish reading this short article you should be able to:
- Understand the purpose of Scripture
- Know how to identify your perspective
- Know what Thinking Like a Hebrew means
- Realize the need for understanding history
- Comprehend the variety of literature
First, we will look at why you need to know what the purpose of Scripture is. Then, we will identify what perspectives are. Next, we will observe our thought patterns and discuss the idea of thinking like a Hebrew. Then, we will discuss the importance of history. Finally, we will observe the necessity of understanding biblical literature.
The Five Keys are:
- The Purpose Key
- The PerspectiveKey
- The Thought Form Key
- The Historical Key
- The Literary Key
THE PURPOSE KEY
God has revealed himself in Scripture by his acts and his words. To determine what God means in Scripture when he speaks and acts, we must know the purpose of Scripture. Therefore,
knowing the purpose of Scripture will give us a better opportunity to use it properly and more effectively. Therefore, it is important to understand its purpose so that we cut down on its abuse.
Scripture can be defined as the word of God written in the words of men. It shares the redemptive history of God. When we understand how God has acted in faithfulness toward his people, it becomes easier to have faith in the God who is faithful.
Over the years, we have treated Scripture as many different things. We must understand that Scripture is not a science, history, or math book. Scripture is a group of writings over many generations who chief revelation is Jesus, who came to bring the Rule of God into the world and rescue the world from certain destruction at the hands of the devil.
Paul provides us with a clear view of the purpose of Scripture in his second letter to Timothy. The greater context of the following verse is salvation.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3.16).
The statement that the human words are God-breathed surely points to their truth and trustworthiness. There is a specific goal which these writings point toward: teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.
The purpose of Scripture is to bring about completeness and equipment of the people of God.
THE PERSPECTIVE KEY
Every reader is at the same time an interpreter of what he or she is reading. First, when you read, you bring to the text your own set of glasses, i.e., your presuppositions, through which you read and interpret. Let’s take numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) as an example. Second, the version you choose is a translation of other languages, Greek in the NT, Hebrew, and Aramaic in the OT. Translators are often called upon to make choices regarding meanings. Their choices will affect how you understand the text (1 Cor. 7.36; Rom. 9.5).
Western Christianity has become superficial and shallow: we do not give ourselves time to soak ourselves in Scripture, ans stunted spiritual development, which includes an undervaluing of the Bible, is the unhappy result. (J.I. Packer. Christianity Today. October 28, 1996. 25.
THE THOUGHT FORM KEY
We must learn to think like a Hebrew. We must realize that Scripture was given to people living in other time frames who thought differently than we do. There is a vast difference between the Hebrew thought form of those people and the Greek thought form which we have inherited in the Western world.
Greek thought and much of Western thought is abstract and theoretical. Words and concepts like love, hate, heaven, hell, saved, or lost, are defined in order to be understood. It uses the ear gate for understanding.
Hebrew thought is concrete or optical. It often defines things by action and pictures. It uses the eye gate for understanding.
THE HISTORICAL KEY
CONTEXT: Historical Questions
History is important! Before we can understand a passage in the Bible, we need to know the historical situation which caused the writing.
History will vary from book to book in the Old and New Testament. For example, it is important to know that Amos and Hosea prophesied at the conclusion of the Northern Kingdom just before its collapse and captivity by the Assyrians, while Haggai was a prophet to the people of the restoration of Judea after the Southern Kingdom had been taken captive and released. Several hundred years elapsed between the two.
The culture was somewhat different. For perspective, think of the history of the United States and the changes in culture over the past two hundred years.
There are four important aspects of history that are important for your preunderstanding of any passage of Scripture. These aspects will help you control the urge to read some twentieth-century understanding back into the first-century language. They are authorship, date, receiver, and purpose.
The process of the discovery of this information gives us a new set of presuppositions through which the content of the book or passage we are reading must pass.
Words have meanings within the historical context in which they are found. The meaning of a word is not determined by a resource tool like a dictionary. We only receive a definition there. The meaning of a word comes from the context in which it appears. Therefore, the same Hebrew or Greek word may have a different meaning when found in a different context.
Let me illustrate by using the word hose in two different sentences.
- She put on her hose.
- She watered her lawn with her hose.
Hose only has a meaning in the context in which it is used.
THE LITERARY KEY
CONTENT: Literary Questions
Reading to comprehend meaning is important. In order to do so you need to know the kind of literature which the author has chosen to use to convey his or her message. It is useful at this point to have a translation handy which will clearly show you if you are reading a selection of poetry or some other kind of literature. A newer Bible translation like NIV does a fine job.
Some people say “We must take the Bible literally.” They usually mean take it woodenly. A better way would be to say that Scripture should be taken naturally. This will keep us from perverting the meaning of Scripture and making it mean something it does not say or was not meant to say.
Literary devices are words or phrases and sometimes sentences which usually have a cultural significance and mean something quite different than the definition of the words at face value.
Scripture uses many colorful images which are drawn from a multitude of places. There are business images like steward and servant. There are domestic images like groom and bride or father and child.
The figures of speech which are used by the original authors in their own language come to English in one of three ways. First, the figure of speech is paralleled in the receptor language. It is exact. Second, when the transfer of meaning is not automatic, a dynamic equivalent is used. Third, if no correspondence is available between the original and receptor language then a corresponding idiom will be used. An example of this is he knew his wife is translated he had sexual relations with his wife.
There are many literary devices which are used in the Bible. Here are some of the most common ones with examples from the text of Scripture:
- Simile: The comparison of two things employing the words as or like. He is as strong as an ox. (Psalm 1.3; Isa. 1.8; Jer. 23.29; Matt. 23.37, 24.27; Luke 10.3; Acts 2.1ff.; 1 Cor. 3.5, 1 Thess. 3.5)
- Metaphor: The comparison of two things by direct assertion without using as or like. (Psalm 23.1, 84.11; Jer. 2.13)
- Hyperbole: This figure of speech is an exaggeration for effect. Jesus adopted the rabbinic tool as one of his main teaching methods. Many serious errors are made by not understanding this literary device. (Deut. 1.28; Psalm 6.6; Matt. 5.30; John 21.25)
- Personification: Applying personality traits to things or ideas. (Psalm 35.10, 114; Isa. 55.12b; Matt. 6.34)
- Apostrophe: The addressing of imaginary objects. (Psalm 114.5)
Good reading will help you arrive at the meaning the original hearer could have heard when you are aware of historical context and the literary content.
Living into the Text
- What are your presuppositions about reading Scripture?
- Why should you go to all the trouble to understand the historical context of any passage of Scripture?
- Why not read it like today’s newspaper?
- How did the historical context of this passage help you better understand what the passage means to you today?