Studying Your Bible - Part 2


Hermeneutics - A Definition

General hermeneutics is that set of rules employed in all materials which stand in need of interpretation. It is used, with proper adaption to the subject matter, in art, history, literature, archeology and translation. Something stands in need of interpretation when something hinders its spontaneous understanding. To put it another way a gap exists between the interpreter and the materials to be interpreted and rules must be set up to bridge this gap. In that the interpreter is separated from his materials in time there is a historical gap; in that his culture is different from that of his text there is a cultural gap; in that the text is usually in a different language there is the linguistic gap; in that the document originates in another country there is the geological gap and the biological gap (the flora and fauna). In that usually a totally different attitude towards life and the universe exists in the text it can be said that there is a philosophical gap.

Biblical hermeneutics is the study of those principles which pertain to the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Here, we will briefly consider the following hermeneutics: - Understanding the Purpose of the Book - Understanding the Historical Background - Understanding the Culture - Understanding the Context - Understanding the Meaning of the Words - Understanding the Parallel Passages - Understanding the Literary Styles - Understanding How to Make an Application


Understanding the Purpose of the Book

There are 66 books in the Bible. Each one has a specific purpose which relates in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Leviticus has an entirely different purpose from say, Romans. When you read something in Leviticus, you would not apply it in the same way as you would Romans. Understanding the purpose of the Thessalonian letters greatly helps in trying to understand some of Paul's comments there. Each of the four gospels has a different purpose, which explains why they are not identical biographical sketches.

To aid us in understanding the purpose of a book, we use a Bible handbook, or a survey of the Bible. Commentaries will also contain information on the purpose of the book. Some Study Bibles also contain this information.


Understanding Historical Background

One of the more critical principles in understanding the Bible is to understand the Historical Background of a passage. For instance, in Luke 4:25-30, we find the Jews trying to throw Jesus off a cliff because of what He said. We can only understand why they wanted to do this by understanding the historical background of the two people Jesus spoke of. In John 10:22, if we knew the historical background, we would have very interesting information about why the Holy Spirit saw it as important to add that the feast of the dedication was in winter. Understanding the historical background of, say Ezekiel 26 in how the prophecy against Tyre was fulfilled gives us an example of how God intends us to interpret prophecy, and with what precision it is carried out. In Revelation 3:18 we read of the things of which the Lord counsels the church at Laodicea to buy of Him. If we understood the historical background of the passage, we'd understand the irony here.

To aid us in understanding the historical background of books and passages in the Bible, we could look at a Bible Survey, a Bible Handbook, or a Bible Dictionary. There are also many books available devoted to the history of specific times during the Bible. Alfred Edersheim is the classic work on THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS THE MESSIAH. He also wrote a very interesting work on The Temple. Josephus was a historian who wrote during the time of Jesus and discusses some of the verbal traditions of the Jews at the time as well as a "secular" view of Jewish history. Charles Ludwig wrote a book on the Rulers of New Testament Times which is quite inexpensive, very interesting, and quite helpful. Commentaries, and some really good Study Bibles will also contain some historical background.


Understanding the Culture

Again, a critical subject. Not understanding the culture in a passage sometimes may lead to a false interpretation of what is read. In Romans 12:20, for example, if we knew the culture, or customs of the land, we'd know that Paul is not showing us a way of "Christian vengeance." In Matthew 13, Jesus draws heavily on the customs of the day in giving His kingdom parables. Not understanding the customs have lead many liberal scholars down completely false paths in trying to understand the purpose of the church.

To aid us in understanding the cultural background of various passages in the Bible, we use books on manners and customs in the Bible. Again, some commentaries may contain some of this information.


Understanding the Context

Misinterpreting Scripture, and wrenching things out of the text that were never there goes on all the time. It is not difficult to pull a Scripture out of its context, and give it a completely different meaning. When interpreting Scripture, it is critical to keep the text in context. By context, we mean the parts of a sentence or paragraph, immediately next to or surrounding a passage. Some passages that seem very difficult clear up nicely when we carefully examine the context.

The whole prosperity doctrine and presumptuous faith movements largely build their doctrines on taking scripture out of context and making the Bible say things that it never said.

There is no book really that can help us learn to study the context of a passage. Our resources here are limited to possibly using a commentary as a helpful guide in reinforcing, or contradicting our interpretation.


Understanding the Meaning of the Words

One of the obstacles we face in understanding the text is finding out exactly what the author meant when he wrote the words. We must not impose our definition on the words, but find out what they meant when they were written. This is a particularly difficult, or at least tedious task since this problem is compounded by understanding the English word in our translation, understanding the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word in the original, and understanding what that word meant when it was written. Words change in meaning even in our own generation. Words are not static. They are constantly changing in their use and meaning. There are many ways we can attack this problem. On the first level, a good English dictionary should not be overlooked. You might be surprised at how often this will serve as a valuable tool. On the next level, it begins to get difficult if you are not familiar with Greek or Hebrew. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance proves to be the easiest way to do a complete, original study of a particular word. However, this is only the beginning! In conjunction with Strong's, we use a set of four books published by Baker Book House. These include a Greek Concordance, a Hebrew Concordance, a Greek Lexicon, and a Hebrew Lexicon. These books will be discussed later in this text.

Another way to study the meaning of a word is to use a book called Vine's Expository Dictionary. This book lists the English word, gives the passages which are relevant and discusses the meaning of that word. The only real shortcoming in using this approach is that it is not exhaustive. There are words that are not discussed. However, this is an easy short-cut if your particular word is listed.

Other approaches are to purchase word studies. Wilson's Word Studies are very popular. Wuest's Word Studies are also popular and inexpensive.


Understanding the Parallel Passages

When studying the Word, one must take into consideration all the Scriptural passages that shed light on a particular subject. Let the Bible speak for itself. The Bible in many cases is its own best commentary. Practice comparing Scripture with Scripture.

Whenever you come across some new amazing discovery in the Bible relating to a spiritual principle, there is a nice little rule of thumb I like to use from the Bible itself. That is, "by two or three witnesses shall a thing be established." What I mean here is that if this new discovery is an important spiritual principle, I should be able to find it reiterated somewhere else in the Bible.

The book that really helps in this area is a good Study Bible. I prefer to use Scofield, but there are others as well.


Understanding the Literary Styles

Throughout the Bible, you will encounter various literary styles, such as history, poetry, prophecy, proverbs, and parables. We cannot interpret these differing styles in the same way. History passages should be interpreted literally, while poetry passages are often written in figurative language. The greatest help we have in these circumstances is our common sense. We also have the context of the passage we are dealing with. If we understand the background of what we are reading, we should rarely have a problem with literary styles. Being careful not to jump to conclusions will serve us well.

Let's look at a few figures of speech used in the Bible . . .


The Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech, in which a word or phrase that ordinarily means one thing is applied to another thing, in order to suggest a likeness between the two. Examples of metaphors are, "a copper sky" and "a heart of stone."The Simile A simile is also a comparison between two things, like a metaphor; only, the comparison is indicated by, "like," or "as." Examples of this are, "a face like stone," "as hard as nails," and "his eyes were like fire."


The Analogy

An analogy is a likeness in some ways between things that are otherwise unlike. There is an analogy between the human heart and a pump, the Lord and a shepherd, and the saints and sheep.


The Hyperbole

The hyperbole is an exaggerated statement, used for effect, and not meant to be taken literally. An example is in Matthew 7, where Jesus talks about the person looking for the specks in his brother's eye, while having beams in his own eye.


The Personification

The poetic device which takes inanimate objects, and gives them human characteristics is called a personification. An example is saying that the mountains sing, or clap their hands.


The Idiom

Every language has certain peculiar phrases, which cannot be analyzed by the usual grammatical process. Idioms are a mode of expression that defies the rules, and depends on the society to supply the definition. The dictionary defines idioms as, "a small group or collection of words expressing a single notion." We often say that "we're in a pickle," or "it is raining cats and dogs," or "he's dead from the neck up." These are all idioms, and we depend on everyone "getting the picture" because they live in our society.


Making the Application

How do we apply the truths found in the Word? There are some passages of Scripture that are obviously not to be applied in the same way they were applied at the time of their writing. Yet, if there was no application for us today, the passage would never have been in the Bible for "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Often, in the Bible there are multiple levels of application. Let's briefly look at a few of these levels.


The Practical Application

Easily seen and most obvious level of application, this is when the Bible hits you right between the eyes. "This is His commandment, that we should believe on the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, as He gave us commandment." There is no problem in figuring out how to apply this passage. It is practical, and applicable to our lives right now, this instant, and also next Tuesday when we are wronged by a brother.


The Secondary Application

A Secondary Application is often needed when we see commandments or teachings that primarily apply to the culture during the time of the writing. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul instructs Christian women to cover their heads. At that time, an uncovered female head was either an unfaithful wife, or a prostitute. Paul was instructing the women of the day not to exercise their freedom in this regard in violating the standards of their culture, thus bringing a scandalous appearance and a reproach to the Gospel. One of my favorite illustrations of this secondary application came from a Christian musician who spoke during a concert. He recalled the story of Peter walking on water. Here, there are TWO secondary applications. We all know the story, Peter jumps out of the boat and begins to walk on water when he takes his eyes off of Jesus and begins to sink. Our application is to keep our eyes on Jesus and not look at our circumstances. The other application is that there were 12 people on the boat. The only one who had enough faith to even jump out of the boat was Peter. The application is that it is better to at least make mistakes for the Lord than to sit in a nice comfortable "boat."


The Prophetic Application

In this application, we are not so much considering the end times as much as we look at God's plan for man. There are scads of places in the Bible where we use this application, mostly in the Old Testament. This is easily seen in all of the laws and regulations laid out in the Torah, or the five books of Moses. There are fantastic discoveries awaiting you by studying each and every detail in these tedious laws. The many sacrifices all look forward to Jesus Christ as the final, ultimate sacrifice. Daniel's prophecies tell of the last days, Isaiah 53 tell of the coming Messiah. Almost every chapter in the Old Testament has a prophetic application.


The Mystical Application

What I mean here is applying the text in order to understand the Lord more. All over the Bible, we are commanded to know the Lord. The Lord often says "And they will know that I am the Lord." We can learn of the ways in which God deals with people, points that the Lord tries to make, get an insight into eternity, we can gain insight into understanding how God thinks, and why He does certain things. In this case, the question we seek to answer is "why did God put that there? "One of the most dramatic and consistent insights we get from making the Mystical application is the evidence of design in the Bible. We can see Jesus Christ on every page. We see the fingerprint of the Holy Spirit throughout the Bible. This strengthens your faith, and gives you a respect for the authority of the Word in every situation.


Reference Books

Reference books are the tools of the trade for people who study the Bible, that is, you and I. As with any trade, there is a large investment in tools. Bible Study is no exception. This is the one place I can think of where you really can throw moderation out the door. Here, you can completely indulge yourself. Buy all the books you can afford, get into them, and learn of God!

Some of us don't have that kind of budget though! So where do we start? Hopefully, we will answer that question, or at least address it so that we don't wander aimlessly through the local bookstore spending lots of unnecessary money on something we don't yet need.

These ideas are mostly my own, so remember Acts 17:11!


The Most Important Book

Easily, and without debate, the most important book you will ever own is a Bible. What kind of Bible do you buy? What translation?

Translations are pretty much a matter of personal taste, and there is much to be said for each one of them, except of course the New World Translation (from the Jehovah's Witnesses)! In a Bible to be used for study, the choices basically come down to three possibilities: King James, New American Standard, and the New International Version. An important concept to keep in mind is that whichever translation you choose, stick to it! Why? Because you'll find it MUCH easier to remember verses and figures of speech if you stay with one text. King James is the classic translation used for years by almost all Bible teachers. The good points in choosing King James is that most reference works key themselves to King James, almost all the commentators quote from King James, and is a very well known translation. The Standard. On the bad side, King James is difficult to get used to. Many of the words used are outdated, there are some inaccuracies in the translation (all of which by the way are addressed in reference books), and is by far the least readable of the translations. New American Standard sought to be a more literal translation of the Bible. It is probably the second most popular translation in use today, and there are many reference books that key to it. On the bad side, the classical commentators did not have a New American Standard to quote from, so not all reference works will key to it. While New American Standard is a definite improvement in readability over King James, it is not the most readable of the three most popular translations. New International Version is the most readable translation. Modern English was used (it is the newest of the three translations). On the bad side, almost no reference books quote from The New International . . . yet! This translation is gaining in popularity probably faster than any other translation today. OK, so which one do you go for? Well, how good are you at the English language? How diligent a student do you plan to be? Are you willing to overcome the difficulties of old English? Perhaps you'd like two different translations. One for study, and one for casual reading. I highly recommend King James if you can put up with the old English. If for no other reason than that almost all reference books key to it, and quote from it. Once you get used to the language, it becomes second nature to you. If you find that you have trouble with King James, pick up a New International Version for casual reading. But in the end, the choice is up to you!


Bible Handbooks and Surveys

These books are really great. They contain background, archaeology studies, histories, explanations, mini-commentaries, notes, outlines, maps, and all kinds of information you would otherwise have to pour through volumes and volumes of books to get. This is the basic reference book. There are two pretty much standard works used by almost everyone. Halley's Bible Handbook (about $10-15), and Unger's Survey of the Bible ($11). There are many others that are quite good, but these two seem to me to be the most useful.


Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

A Bible Dictionary or Encyclopedia lists just about any concept or topic in the Bible and seeks to explain it, or give background on it. You might look up chariots and find out all kinds of things about a chariot. You might look up Paul and get a brief biography of him. These books are not just parallel passage works (although they contain that as well), but also contain archaeologic and historic information not found in the Bible. You could spend many a fulfilling evening browsing through one of these books. Some names to look into are Unger's Bible Dictionary, Smith's Bible Dictionary, New Bible Dictionary, Davis Bible Dictionary, Harper's Bible Dictionary, and many, many others. Depending on where you go, and which one you like, you'll spend between $10 and $25 for these. Unger's Dictionary is also available in a generic softcover for less than $10 when you can find it.



A Commentary seeks to explain the scriptures to us. There are many, many, many commentaries out there. The list is endless. Their focus ranges from devotional to expository, from practical to prophetic, from surface level to in-depth, from complete sets to individual books, from one-volume commentaries to 20, 30 and 40 volume sets. Everyone should probably have a one-volume commentary, at least most people think so! The classical, standard one to have is Matthew Henry's one-volume commentary, but deserving of mention is the Wycliffe One Volume Commentary. These are pretty much basic, devotional commentaries that will help with insights that you can use every day. But you don't just buy a one-volume commentary thinking that you'll never buy another one! A one-volume commentary is of very limited use. More useful is to buy a commentary on a book you are studying. For this, you'll have to become familiar with authors until you find your favorites.



Now we get into reference books where YOU do the work instead of benefiting from work already done. It is important to get an exhaustive concordance. An exhaustive concordance will list EVERY word in the Bible alphabetically. There are many uses for this. When you can't find a certain passage, but you know a couple of the words, look it up in the concordance. When you do a word study of, say the word gold, you can find ALL the places where gold is mentioned. A good concordance will also give you the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic definitions of all the words in the Bible.

Despite their size, concordances are not all that expensive. If you shop around, you can find concordances for $10. There are two popular concordances: Strong's and Young's. I guess I should just say to go for the best deal. Just make sure it is an exhaustive concordance.


Manners and Customs Books

These books give insight into the backgrounds of the culture and practices of Bible times. There is no real set standard here, but a valuable feature in one of these books is that it is keyed to the Bible reference rather than by topic.


Expository Dictionary

An expository dictionary differs from a Bible Dictionary in that we actually look up a word used in the Bible and get a complete definition of that word as used in the text, as opposed to a general definition as you find in a concordance. Here, the standard and basic work is Vine's Expository Dictionary. Available in a single volume, the price is quite modest. Also, there is Wilson's Dictionary of Old Testament words, and others. Often, these works are not exhaustive, but will contain just about any word you'd like to look up.


Interlinear Bibles

An Interlinear Bible will have the actual original language of the Bible and a literal, word for word translation right below it, with a King James (or other) text on the facing page. The word for word translation will be in all its glory of being in bad English grammar (obviously) and sometimes misleading, but nevertheless QUITE valuable when you need to know the exact word, or you'd like to see what the text says literally.


Hebrew and Greek Concordances

What? Another concordance? Yes, this time instead of looking up a word in English and finding all the occurrences of a word, we can look up the original Hebrew or Greek word and find all the occurrences! So what if you don't read Greek or Hebrew? No problem if you bought Strong's Exhaustive Concordance! You look up a word in Strong's and get Strong's word number (there is a number for every word in Strong's). Then you take that number and, if you buy Baker's Hebrew and Greek Concordances, and look it up. The book will list ALL the places that exact word is used. Of course, I'd definitely recommend the Concordances published by Baker. The official titles are The Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament numerically coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance by George V. Wigram, and The Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament numerically coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance by George V. Wigram. Both are published by Baker Book House and go for $20 a piece.



Now that we can look up all the occurrences of the original words, we can get even more complete definitions of words! Again, coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance and published by Baker Book House, there are Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to The Old Testament a dictionary numerically coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance with an exhaustive English index, and Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament a dictionary numerically coded to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. Again, these two books are $20 each, and match the two concordances previously mentioned. Now, understand that you aren't locked in to purchasing only these works. There are lots of others. The advantage to these is that you don't need to read Greek or Hebrew. Otherwise, good luck! That about sums up a BASIC reference library, although I'd be quick to add that there are a few books worth getting that don't really fit into a reference classification per se, but nevertheless are great references.

  • Topical Bibles
  • Harmony of the Gospels
  • History of Christianity
  • Foxe's Book of Martyrs
  • The Works of Josephus
  • Chronological Bibles
  • Meredith's Book of Bible Lists
  • Number in Scripture (E.W. Bullinger)
  • Wilson's Dictionary of Bible Types
  • The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah (Edersheim)
  • Systematic Theology
  • The "All The..." series by Herbert Lockyer Bible Atlases

And there are many, many more. This does not include a really fine background books which will be discussed in the next installment.


Saving Your Money

One of the most frustrating things is to not be able to afford the reference books you need to indulge in a certain study you'd like to take on. One solution is to purchase your books through the mail via one of the discount book distributors. One source is:

Christian Book Distributors
P.O. Box 3687
Peabody, Massachusetts 01961-3687

They always have great deals on their books. Usually, you can get 30-50% off or more!

Michael Dolim