How to Interpret the Bible

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

How do you interpret the Bible?  Do you interpret the Bible literally?  Do you interpret it figuratively?  The answer is “Yes!”

How Do You Interpret the Bible?

The Bible is full of poetic writings, psalms (songs), wisdom literature, history, family lineage, prophecy, parables, analogies, symbols, and beatitudes.  So how do you interpret the Bible for all its worth?  The answer depends upon the context of the chapter, who is speaking, and what type of Scriptures are involved.  For example, the Book of Revelation contains much language that is figurative and symbolic because the Apostle John was trying to describe some things that he had never seen before.

An example of symbolic writing is when John writes about stinging scorpions in Revelation 9:7-10: “The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle.  They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.”  I have never seen any locusts that look like horses prepared for battle with crowns of gold on and having human faces, not to mention having teeth like lions with breastplates and scorpion-like stingers in their tails.  John is attempting to describe something that he has never seen before by using language of things that he has seen on the earth before.  These locusts could well be modern weapons of warfare but John would have no idea how to describe it using today’s language.

We can not interpret these “stinging scorpions” literally because no such creature exists, but the terror of such a thing indicates that it will be “tormenting people for five months”, perhaps describing something that will in the future and has terrible attributes such as these.  So even though there will not be actual scorpions, we know that what the symbolic scorpions do, will occur literally someday.  The book of Revelation contains many symbols of things that could not be adequately described by John in his day but which today may sound like something a nation would use during a time of war.

Jesus often used parables to describe a biblical principle like the sower in Matthew 13:18-23.   Jesus used parables to hide the meaning from the religious and self-righteous but to make clear what the Kingdom of Heaven is like to the disciples and His followers (Matt. 13:10-11).  A parable is a story that is placed along side of a biblical principle.  In fact the word parable means to “come along side of.”

How To Interpret The Bible

At other times you don’t need to interpret it at all; just read it for what it is

Do You Interpret the Bible Literally?

Yes and no.  When there is figurative language you can see that particular things are explained using language in order to make something more clear.  At other times you don’t need to interpret it at all; just read it for what it is, like all liars, murders and sexually immoral people will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Rev 21:8).

Wisdom literature like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes should be taken literally but there are some principles that are comparative to other things.  One example is in Job 26:11 which says, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” These two proclivities are true to life.  Even though the imagery is disgusting about the dog, this is something that the writer of Proverbs (Solomon) has seen in his lifetime but surely he has seen fools repeat the same mistake over and over.  A similar saying is found in 2 Peter 2:2b which says, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.”  Even though first and second Peter are not exactly wisdom literature, there is wisdom scattered throughout it and the entire Bible.  When Jesus said that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart“ He did not mean that the physical act of adultery had been committed, but as far as God is concerned he has already sinned in a literal sense (lusting) because God looks at the heart (Matt 5:28).

The Bible contains a rich history of the nation of Israel but also of the nations that had dealings with it so you can read these portions of the Bible literally because they are factually true.  The New Testament can also be read as a historical document as the historical reliability of Luke’s writing in his gospel and in the Book of Acts has been established by historians.  Archeological evidence has confirmed many of the people, places and events which were recorded in both the Old and the New Testaments.  So the Bible is also a historical document that has been empirically verified to be true.

Keep the Scriptures within the Context

You may have heard this before:  To take a text out of context makes it a pretext.  This is absolutely true. Many false religions and cults make a fine art out of taking and twisting Scriptures to fit their own meaning and imaginations.  Peter warned about such people who do this in 2 Peter 3:16b where “ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”  This is a serious warning to anyone who tries to create or pollute the Scriptures by making them say what they do not say or into some other strange doctrine that does not fit the soundness of the Word of God.  Paul told Timothy to make sure and rightly divide the Scriptures (2 Tim 2:15).  Even so, some still like to cut and paste rather than divide it.  To rightly divide the Scriptures literally means to “accurately handle.”  This seems to fit the meaning of placing Scripture in its proper context.

Do You Interpret the Bible Figuratively or Literally?

The answer is yes: to both, depending upon which book in the Bible you are reading.  For most people who are familiar with the Bible and have read it often, they can understand where there is a literal interpretation or a figurative one.  There is no other book in the world like the Bible which contains accurate history, lesson-filled parables, beautiful poetry, inspiring songs (Psalms for example), vivid symbolism, and life-giving doctrines.  In some places you can take it figuratively while at other times, take it literally and at face value.  There are other times when you do not need to interpret it at all.  Whichever book in the Bible you read, you can know it’s true.  It is unchanging.  It is timeless.  It is the Word of God – and that makes it perfect.

Check out the video in the top right of this article showing Jesus in every book of the Bible. You will enjoy this!

Let us know what you think in the comments. Here is another article you might want to read:

Right Vs. Wrong: How To Answer This From The Bible



The Holy Bible, New International Version
THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide “Jesus in Every Book of the Bible”

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