THE GOLDEN RULE OF INTERPRETATION
THE message which a passage in the Scriptures has for the individual is conditioned by his attitude toward truth and by the way in which he approaches it. Of course, the first things which a person should know when he approaches the study of any single Book of the Scriptures are who the writer was, to whom he was writing, the time of his writing, and the occasion of his communication. In other words, the reader should, generally speaking, be able to orient himself, as far as possible, to the position of the writer and the recipients of the communication.
Unfortunately, the principle of ascertaining all possible data relative to a given passage in order that it might be understood correctly has been carried to a dangerous extreme. Some scholars insist that a passage of Scriptureespecially a portion from the prophetic word is unintelligible unless one can by historical data orient himself to the position of the original author. This position is unfounded. There are numerous passages throughout the Word in regard to which there is little or no historical data yet these passages are crystal clear. As an example, note Psalm One, the last two verses of which are prophetic. The student must, therefore be careful lest he be misguided by a misleading inference which has been elevated to the level of established unquestioned principles.
In the second place, to attain an accurate understanding of the Scriptures, one must express in his own words what he has read. This principle is of the utmost importance, because words convey ideas. If one has a hazy, indistinct idea of a word, phrase, clause, or sentence, his understanding will likewise be cloudy. Even though he may not, and generally does not, comprehend certain words employed he should clothe the thought with his own diction. One can read, for instance, the first sentence in Genesis and can state the thought in his own words by putting it in indirect discourse as follows: "The writer declares that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). He may not understand what is meant by the phrase "in the beginning." He has, of course, a very limited and distorted idea of God. As to what is meant by the expression "the heavens," he knows that his idea is infinitesimally small in comparison with what the sacred writer meant. Naturally he has a clearer idea of the meaning of "the earth." Having expressed the thought in his own words, he is better prepared to examine further the terms that are not clear to him.
In the third place, he should know and apply accurately the Golden Rule of Interpretation: "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise."
The assumption, of course, is that a person is speaking seriously and means what he says, unless he makes it plain that he is speaking otherwise than literally. When the plain sense of Scripture, therefore, makes common sense, one is to seek no other sense, but is to take each statement at its face value. As anyone can see in a dictionary of any language, words, as a rule, have several definitions; and some have a number of meanings and shades of ideas. That meaning which accords with the facts of the context is to be chosen as its significance in a given case.
Often figurative expressions are used along with the literal terms. When the facts of the context indicate that a word or phrase is not being used literally, then, and only then, should one interpret it symbolically. All figurative language, however, is to be interpreted in accordance with regular usage and with the facts of the context.
To clarify this basic principle, one should study a passage that is obviously symbolicsuch as Ezekiel 37:1-14. According to this passage the prophet was given a vision of a valley covered with dry bones. The Lord instructed him to utter a prophecy concerning them. When he did so, there was a rumbling noise and a terrific earthquake. Then all the bones began to move, bone to its bone. In doing so, each bone took its position in relation to other bones so as to form skeletons. Immediately sinews appeared upon the bones, connecting them. Then flesh began to form on these bones, and soon skin covered each of the corpses. Finally, the Spirit of God breathed the breath of life into each body. Then they all arose, a mighty army of God.
What is the significance of this revelation? Is it to be taken literally or symbolically? A glance at verse 11 answers this question: "Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off." These bones are, therefore, not to be interpreted literally, but symbolically: "these bones are the whole house of Israel." They, therefore, represent the entire Jewish nation.
Do these dry bones represent Israel throughout the centuries or at some particular time? The answer is that they represent the nation when the people are saying, "Our hope is lost; we are clean cut off."
What is referred to by the words, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off"? The hope of Israel is obviously the Messiah for whom the nation through the centuries has been looking. Here the prophet, looking into the future, sees the time that Israel has given up his ancient hope and expectation regarding Messiah and His marvelous deliverance of the nation.
When the people of Israel have given up the expectation of the coming of a personal Messiah, there occurs some event or series of events, properly represented in the vision by a thundering noise and a mighty devastating earthquake. These events affect the nation of Israel and bring the discordant elements together, as indicated by the coming of the bones together. A dispassionate, yet sympathetic, survey of Jewish affairs leads one to see in this prophecy mighty events which unify the nation in preparation for statehood. Personally, I see the beginning of the fulfillment of the prediction in the events of World War I, as they started the unification of the nation and the creation in the hearts of the people of Israel a desire to return to the land of their fathers.
The facts of this entire passage must be taken into consideration; and each word is to be accepted at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the context indicate otherwise.
According to the rule, each statement is to be interpreted in the light of the facts of the immediate contextthat is, the facts that are presented both before and after the particular statement under consideration. In serious writings, such as the Scriptures, the flow of thought is logical. The words preceding a given passage prepare the way for the thought that is flowing into and through it to the words immediately following. The force of this principle appears very clearly in the statement that "a text apart from its context is a pretext."
According to the rule, a statement must also be studied in the light of related passages, because all truth harmonizes. The force of this principle is further seen in the light of the fact that two or more people speaking on a given subject have each his own personality and point of view. One may also be more verbose than the other. Each has his own story to tell. The purpose of speaking on a given subject also determines the fulness of the discussion and the choice of words. A speaker may at one time make a brief statement in regard to a certain matter, whereas, at another time and under special conditions, he may make a fuller and more extended statement. There is perfect harmony between the two statements, though one is fuller than the other. Jesus, for example, on one occasion said: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one tittle of the law to fall" (Lk. 16:17); but, on another occasion, He said: "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished" (Matt. 5:18). By examining both passages, one gets the full thought that Jesus expressed.
According to the rule, each word is to be taken literally unless, when so interpreted, a statement conflicts with some axiomatic or fundamental truth. An example of this principle is the statement in Genesis 6:6: "And it repented Jehovah that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." One of the fundamental truths concerning the nature of God is that He is unchanging. If, then, repented is here interpreted in its primary, ordinary, usual, literal sense, the statement would contradict a fundamental truth. The word
repented, therefore, is here used anthropomorphically. When man changes, God alters events to fit the changed condition. Man was not created evil; but, of his own free will, he became so corrupt that God, in grief, had to blot out the human race, except Noah and his family.
Genesis 6:6 is also an illustration of the fundamental truth that the Scriptures are never contradictory. If repented were interpreted here in the primary, ordinary, usual, literal sense of the word, the verse would contradict Numbers 23:19:
God is not a man, that he should lie,
Neither the son of man, that he should repent:
Hath he said, and will he not do it?
Or hath he spoken, and will he not make it good?
"A text apart from its context is a pretext." It is a common practice among many devout, sincere people to take a phrase, clause, or a sentence of Scripture apart from its context and from it draw comfort. Isaiah, chapter 40, is, for instance, a special message which God has for His people Israel in the end time. Verses 29-31 is a promise that He will give superhuman strength and assistance to the Jews, who, in the time of Jacob's trouble, turn to God with all their hearts and sincerely wait for the appearing of the Messiah whose glorious coming is announced in this chapter. Ignoring these simple facts, many Christian people claim these promises for themselves, whereas the context shows that this supernatural assistance is promised to Israel. Another illustration of misinterpreting and misapplying Scriptures is Isaiah 58:11. Frequently the words "Jehovah will guide thee continually" are used as a wall motto by Christian people who hang their hopes for divine guidance upon them. When they are read in the light of the context, it is seen that the prophet was making promises to Israel that, if they turn from their sins and follow God, He will guide them continually. Hundreds of passages are thus taken apart from their contexts and are made to teach something entirely different from what the original writer intended. One of my old professors at the Seminary, in substance, used to say, "I know that the Bible is true because it has survived so very much poor preaching." Let each reader be careful that he understands the context of each passage and that he interprets the words accordingly.
If one follows the Golden Rule of Interpretation, he will never go wrong: if he fails to follow it, he will never go right.
I wish to conclude the discussion of the Golden Rule of Interpretation with this little illustration, which will, I trust, vividly show the importance of the fundamental principles involved in it. Suppose a philanthropic multimillionaire should write to a young man in whom he saw great talents and possibilities of becoming an executive and business administrator. This financier writes a letter, laying great resources at the disposal of the young man and pledging him his great influence.
Suppose another young man should find this letter and, ignoring the name of the person addressed, should claim the promises made by this generous man, could he expect this philanthropist to make good these promises to him? Such a question is ridiculous. The letter was written to a favored young man, residing at a certain place. The promises are made to him, and to him only. No sensible person would dream of ignoring the one to whom the promises were made and claim them for himself.
There are definite promises in the Bible made to certain people, and to certain ones alone. In order to interpret the Scriptures correctly, one must see to whom each promise is made and act accordingly. Thus the statement frequently expressed that "every promise in the Book is mine" is absolutely false.