Thursday, August 16, 2018

Literal Interpretation

"Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy" (Psalm 98:8).

People sometimes ask me, “you don’t interpret the Bible literally, do you?” The way this question is phrased assumes that surely I could not possibly be so ignorant as to take the Bible literally. I quickly answer, “Of course I do.” I say it as if obviously anybody who knows anything will interpret the Bible literally.

I go on to explain what this business of interpreting the Bible is all about. Literal interpretation means interpreting according to the “letter.” What does the text actually say? We should be seeking the plain sense of the meaning of the text when we come to the Bible. We are to interpret the Bible according to its letters and its literature, according to the way it is actually written.

Sometimes people think because the Bible is the Word of God, we dare not read it the same as other books. This inclination has led some people to seek all kinds of hidden meanings in the text. We have to say, though, the Bible is written in ordinary human language—nouns are nouns and verbs are verbs. The Bible is inspired and inerrant, but its meaning is found in its plain literal sense.

God did not inspire passages of Scripture many years ago to tell us answers totally unrelated to the literal meaning originally intended. We cannot, for instance, go into the Bible and find a statement that says the Word of God flies through the air (for instance, Zechariah 5:1), and then say this is a prophecy of radio and television. Certainly, God uses the Scripture to speak to us, but the message is always consistent with the literal interpretation.

Because the Bible is literature, literal interpretation means we have to be able to recognize the literary form in which parts of the Bible come to us. The Bible contains poetry, symbolic prophecy, historical narrative, letters, and so forth. Tomorrow we will begin to look at these forms.

Despite their popularity and easy reading, paraphrase editions of the Bible preserve less accurately the literary forms of Scripture. Precise interpretation, which can be difficult, becomes more so. If you use a paraphrase, consider also consulting major translations (NASB, KJV, NKJV, ESV) for further benefit.