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THE INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE.
" WhoSO READETH, LET HIM UNDERSTAND.”—Matth. 24: 15.
In our last lecture, we noticed some necessary qualifications for understanding the Bible; and in this we purpose to refer to some of those principles or rules by which it is to be understood.
An eminent linguist used to say, that he desired no better grammar in learning a language, than he could make himself, by carefully noticing the grammatical forms of words as they occur in the New Testament of that language. Whether all students in linguistic lore would be alike successful in forming their own grammar or not, it is quite certain that the student of the Bible, by carefully noting the peculiarities of Scripture composition, will, in time, find himself in possession of a set of rules for Biblical interpretation far more valuable, than any arbitrary rules he is obliged to commit to memory. A good judgment, therefore, with an honest inquiry after truth, in connection with the qualifications for understanding the Bible, mentioned in our last lecture, will enable us to deduce our own rules from the Bible itself. When we take a view of the elaborate rules of Horne
and Ernesti, with their almost innumerable subdivisions and exceptions, we can but feel, that did those authors fully carry out their plan, the young student might be presented with a book of rules, quite as large as, and far more intricate than the Bible itself. This would be very much like putting a book into the hand of the beginner nearly as large, and much more difficult to learn, than the Hebrew Bible, as the grammar of that Bible.
of that Bible. In all studies, it should be one of the first and most important rules, to spend no more time in learning a rule, than would be requisite for learning all embraced within its compass, without any rule at all.
Elaborate rules of interpretation, may be of great service to the minds that deduced them from the Scriptures, and they may, from time to time, give many good suggestions and much encouragement to others as the same principles are becoming developed in their own minds, but to learn them, as arbitrary lessons, is of little use. Every man must, to a great extent, construct his own rules of irrterpretation.
We shall not attempt to pass over a tithe of the ground that writers on this subject explore, but bring what we have to offer into the shortest possible compass, showing rather, how rules of interpretation are to be made, than to attempt to lay them down ourself. Our remarks will come under the following heads :
1. The literal meaning of words. 2. The figurative use of words. 3. The poetical parts of the Bible. 4. The prophetical parts of the Bible.
I. The literal meaning of words first claims our attention.
1. We may sometimes learn the sense of a word from a direct explanation, where one is given by the inspired writer, as in Hebrews 11th, where faith is defined to be the evidence of things not seen.
The inspired writers sometimes give an example in illustration of the meaning of a word. Paul refers to Abraham in illustration of his idea of justification, and James refers to the same as an example of the sense he attaches to the term works.
2. What is called the usus loquendi, or the manner in which a word is used in different texts, will greatly assist in arriving at the true sense of a word. For instance, if we wish to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word Messiah, or the Greek word Baptizo, we may take the Hebrew and Greek Concordances and examine the words wherever they occur in the Bible. By such a course, we can usually make up our mind, from the various connections in which a word is used, as to its true sense. The English Concordance will generally serve a good purpose, but will not answer as a sure guide, since the same Hebrew or Greek word may be rendered by different words in our English Bible. The Hebrew Taneen is translated whale, dragon, serpent, monster; and the Greek allos, is rendered another, more, one, one another, other, otherwise, some, someanother and some others.
It sometimes happens, however, that a word is used but once in the Bible. In such cases, it must be compared with the corresponding word in the ancient versions—the Septuagint, the Targums, the Vulgate and the Syriac. For example, the Hebrew word tahalah, rendered folly, occurs no where in the Bible, except in Job 4: 18; but in
Greek, it is skolion, crooked, perverse; in the Vulgate, pravum, crooked, wicked ; and in the Targums, iniquitas, iniquity.
If a word is found in the New Testament to occur but once, it may be compared with the same word in the Septuagint, the classics, and with the corresponding word in the Vulgate and Syriac.
3. In determining the meaning of words, due regard must be had to the people to whom the language was addressed. Paul and James, evidently wrote to classes, each of which, entertained extreme notions respecting works and faith. The class Paul condemns regards the works of the Jewish law, without faith in Christ, as sufficient to secure salvation; whereas those censured by James, are such as suppose faith in Christ, without corresponding works, to be all that is requisite for salvation. The works Paul condemns, are works without faith in Christ; while the faith James condemns, is faith without corresponding good works.
Very much that is said in the New Testament, on the subject of the resurrection, was in opposition to the doctrine of the Saducees, who, not only denied the future resuscitation of the body, but the future existence of the soul, and hence the term resurrection, as used in the New Testament, usually covers the whole ground of man's future existence, whether of soul or body. That it refers to the future life of the soul, is evident from our Lord's discussion with the Saducees concerning the patriarchs, Math. 22: 23.
4. The context will greatly assist in determining the meaning of a word.
The context most evidently shows that the words of
Elijah to the prophets of Baal, and the words of Micah to the wicked King of Israel, were ironical, and hence are to be taken directly opposite to their literal import.
5. The force and character of a word, may, to some extent, be determined by its etymology; though this method must not be too much relied upon.
(See last Lecture on original languages, &c.)
6. By comparing parallel passages, we may often come at the true meaning of words and phrases.
The Saviour and his apostles quote from the Septuagint, and their words do not always agree with the parallel passages of our Old Testament, which was translated from the Hebrew. Words and phrases, therefore, of the New Testament, must be explained by corresponding words and passages in the Old. (1st Peter 4: 18,)—“ If the righteous scarcely be saved where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" is a quotation of the Septuagint, of Prov. 11 : 31,—the Hebrew of which reads, “Behold the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth; much more the wicked and the sinner."
These passages we could scarcely think came from the same original, though, when critically considered, they are not so widely apart as many might imagine. Probably the true reading, and that which the Hebrew would very well bear, is something like the following :—“Behold the righteous, on the earth, shall be recompensed, even so the wicked and sinner."
II. The figurative use of words next claims our attention.