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The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures

Study earnestly to present yourself approved to God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing (Strong's: dissecting correctly) the Word of Truth.
- 2 Timothy 2:15 -

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Dr. David L. Cooper

Editor's note - In many places in the Scriptures, the believer is encouraged to study the written Word as the foundation for a holy, godly and fruitful life before God and man. But how are we to study this unified, but daunting, compilation of sixty-six books written by over forty authors between nineteen hundred and thirty-five hundred years ago in languages and cultures that may be totally foreign to us? Enter the science of hermeneutics.

To understand hermeneutical principles is to be equipped for an intelligent study of the Word of God, tending greatly to our approval before God as workmen that do not need to be ashamed.

In our previous five Shofars, we've been treated to sound instruction by Dr. David L. Cooper, founder of the Biblical Research Society, in interpreting Scripture, a critical skill to master, particularly in an age in which the Babel of interpretations is legion. With "Rules of Interpretation," a study in sixteen parts (introduction and fifteen section), we will commence what will be our most extensive and detailed study thus far on the topic and continue to hone our skills in rightly dividing the Word of Truth that we might be a clear and accurate voice for the Lord. Let us apply ourselves.

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Dr. David L. Cooper


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Introduction: Necessity For The Laws Of Interpretation

ALL NORMAL intelligent individuals are able to speak and to express themselves by means of language. In our association with others and in our constant use of language, we seldom think of the laws, the basic principles, involved in the speech which we are employing constantly.

Most people use language very loosely and lack accuracy of expressions. On account of insufficient mental discipline and inattention to what others say, we frequently misunderstand what is said. All too often we act upon the misinterpretation of what is expressed and make mistakes. Just a moment's consideration of these vital facts leads one to see the importance of our knowing the basic principles of language.

There are reflected in our language the logical processes of the mind. Psychologists tell us that there are certain definite fixed laws of the mind according to which all normal persons think and act. Thus a document, the expression of the working of an orderly mind, bears the imprint of the laws of thought and can only be understood properly and adequately by one who knows the normal, logical working of the mind. The importance of our knowing these laws may be illustrated by the laws of nature in the material, physical world. There are many laws governing the materials which are built into an automobile. Among them are those governing the different metals used; those controlling gases and the explosion of the same; and those directing electrical energy. No manufacturer could produce an automobile that would run and serve the purchaser, who does not understand all these laws, and who does not conform his workmanship thereto. There are many laws involved in the construction and the operation of the ediphone into which I am now speaking. If something goes wrong with the electronic part of this machine, it will not record what I am speaking. Then the repair man must come out and make the proper adjustment in order that the machine may operate normally. Language has definite, specific laws of thought that are just as real as the laws governing physical matter. These must be understood, therefore, if we are fully to enjoy the blessings of the language which we are using, and which we are endeavoring to understand. I may further illustrate this necessity by calling attention to the Greek. In college and seminary I devoted seven years to the study of that language. Since then I have been studying it. In fact, there are very few days which pass during which I do not consult my Greek New Testament or the Greek grammar. I have thus put thousands upon thousands of hours into the study of the language, not only the words, but the syntax, and the various shades of ideas that are expressed by the delicate shades of the grammar. I have done this in order to get at the exact thought of the original, inspired writers. No one can adequately understand the Greek New Testament or the Hebrew Bible unless he is willing to study hard and long to master the principles of those languages.

Our Bible has been translated by scholars out of the original Hebrew and Greek into the English. The American Revised Version is probably the best translation to date - although there are places where it can be improved. It is the work of fallible men, and all men make mistakes. Nevertheless, it is, in my judgment, the best we have. The English reader must study hard and long if he is to get the real message of this excellent translation.

The Bible is God's revelation to man. We have every reason to believe that not only the thoughts were inspired, but also the very words by which the ideas were expressed in the original tongues were given infallibly by the Spirit. Thus the sacred writers combined spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. The Lord said exactly what He meant and meant just what He said. The prophets and the Apostles spoke in the language of the people to whom they ministered. At the same time their messages were poured into the moulds of the thought forms of the messengers and those to whom they ministered. The Lord had a very definite idea to convey whenever He made a statement. For instance, let us read the first verse of the Scriptures: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In the phrase In the beginning, the time element of the creation is given. God the Creator is mentioned in the noun, the subject of the verb. What He did is expressed by the word, created - the bringing into existence that which prior to the act, had no form or substance. The heavens and the earth are the things that are said to have been created in the beginning. This is one of the most profound statements to be found anywhere. It is exact and definite. It is crystal clear, so very much so that it refutes the basic assumptions of most modern philosophies.

We could take any statement found in the Scriptures and see that it has a definite, specific meaning. The purpose which we should cherish is to learn exactly what is said, to arrive at the precise idea of the inspired writer.

Spiritual Requirements

The Bible is a spiritual book and must be spiritually discerned. The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit; for he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. There are therefore certain spiritual qualifications which a person must possess if he is to understand the revelation of God.

First and foremost, I would say that the first prerequisite is a person's loving God. God made of one man every person to dwell upon the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons and the bounds of their habitations that they should seek God. All men have a thirst for God, though it is generally perverted beyond recognition by inheritance and by one's seeking pleasure in sin. Man's seeking his own pleasure is the result of this perverted love of God and of man's ignorance. What he wants is satisfaction, contentment, rest, joy. These can be found in God alone. The soul of man was made and given capabilities and capacities so that he could enjoy these blessings in communion and fellowship with God. But by the introduction of sin and by wicked practices this inborn capacity for appreciating God has become perverted. Man therefore seeks pleasure here and there.

But the one who has followed the natural instinct in seeking after God, has come to Him and found Him and has been born again, possesses a love for God implanted in his soul. This supernatural affection may be cultivated by the individual until he, like David, can say that his soul pants for God as the hart does for the water brooks.

I can understand my wife and the things that she says and does better possibly than anyone else. I love her with all my heart. I have associated with her and known her actions and reactions to various situations. Thus loving her and understanding her, I can evaluate a statement that she might make or some action that she might perform better than anyone else. So it is with the one who knows God and loves Him.

A second prerequisite to knowing God's Word is to will to do His will. The Lord Jesus Christ said to certain Jews that, if anyone willed to do the will of God, he would know of the teaching which he was then putting forth, whether it was from God or from men (John 7:17). Anyone must come to the point where he has made the will of God his will, if he is to enter into a full appreciation of the revealed will of God. Our Lord Jesus said constantly that He came not to do His own will but the will of Him who sent Him. Thus He continued through prayer in communion and fellowship with God.

Another spiritual qualification is the laying aside of human theories and the practices of men which are contrary to the will of God. In Isaiah 66:1-5 we have a prediction regarding the Jews who will rebuild the Temple and reinaugurate the old Temple services and the Mosaic ritual.

In regard to these Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, said that they will have chosen their own way and that their souls will have delighted in doing their own abominations; He therefore declares that He will choose their delusions and will bring their fears upon them. These men choose the things which they will do and the things in which they delight. Thus they do not consider God whatsoever in their plans and purposes. He therefore chooses their delusions and makes them believe a lie. He then brings upon them the judgment of their deeds.

Certain of the elders of Israel came to Ezekiel. Concerning them the Lord revealed to the prophet that they were not really seeking the will of God, but that they had taken their idols into their own hearts; yet they were coming to him to inquire concerning the will of God. Concerning such people the Lord made this revelation:

Every man of the house of Israel that taketh his idols into his heart and putteth the stumblingblock of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to the prophet; I Jehovah will answer him therein according to the multitude of his idols; that I may take the house of Israel in their own heart, because they are all estranged from me through their idols (Ezek. 14:4,5). Thus all idols, of whatever type they may be, must be laid aside if one comes to God - to His Word - in order to ascertain the real message from the Almighty.

Still another prerequisite for the understanding of God's Word is that each person should pray to the Lord to open his eyes in order that he might see the wonderful things in the Word. David had the revelation of God before his eyes in the form of written documents. He was a brilliant man, but he realized that the human mind must be illuminated by the Spirit of God in order that it might know what is in the Word. The ordinary intellect can grasp some of the facts that are lying on the surface of the Word; but David was not satisfied simply with this superficial meaning of the Revelation. What he wanted was to see the wonderful and the deep spiritual things of the Word. He knew how he could be brought to see them. Thus he cried to the Lord constantly to open his eyes that he might behold these wonderful things. The Apostle Paul urged the church at Ephesus to pray that their spiritual perception might be heightened in order that they might understand the great spiritual realities which are ours in Christ.

I well remember when I learned this important truth. When my attention was called to it, I began to pray for this spiritual insight. The first time I uttered that prayer, the Lord enabled me to see things that I had never observed before, neither had heard fall from any man's lips. In tens of thousands of instances since that day I have asked Him to open my eyes to behold these wonderful things. He always grants my petitions for further light. I am not one of the Lord's pets, because He has none. Any of His children who will come to Him and ask Him in faith to give them spiritual insight into the Word will be heard, and the blessing will be granted - provided they will use it to His glory and honor and to their spiritual good. Let us therefore constantly ask Him to enable us to see the wonderful things in the Word. As we learn them, let us put them into practice and go forward in His cause.

Intellectual Requirements

We shall now turn to the intellectual requirements that are necessary to the understanding of the Word. In the first place let me call attention to II Timothy 2:15: Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth. The Apostle urged Timothy to give diligence to show himself approved unto God, handling aright the Word of God. The King James Version says study to show thyself approved unto God. The translation found in the Revised Version is of course the correct literal rendering. But a person may handle aright or incorrectly the Word of God. If he handles it aright, or holding a straight course in the word of truth, he will, all things being equal, get the real message of the Word. Paul himself believed in studying the Word, even though he was an inspired apostle. He therefore urged Timothy to bring the books, especially the parchments (II Tim. 4:13). Daniel, a prophet of God, studied Jeremiah's prophecies and compared them with the books, probably the books of Kings and Chronicles. In doing this research, the prophet was endeavoring to get at the meaning of the written Word. Let us therefore study the Word in order that we might get its message.

The importance of this principle I may illustrate by the primitive Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian languages. Scholars went throughout the ruins of Egypt and stood amazed before the hieroglyphics inscribed on the monuments. They sought in every way to decipher these. All efforts were in vain until the Rosetta Stone was discovered, which afforded the key to this archaic writing. Then scholars began to study and to translate it. Thus there has been extracted from these unique records of Egypt the stories of the ancient Pharaohs.

The old Babylonian and Assyrian monuments were as silent as the grave to us moderns until Rawlinson copied the Behistun inscription, which afforded the key to the old cuneiform writings. Since then scholars have mastered the languages of these peoples and have read the stories of empires long buried beneath the sands of the centuries. It took hard work on the part of these scholars to ferret out the orthography and the grammar of these languages long-dead. Faithful scientific study and toil always bring results.

Thus it is in the field of biblical study. There are certain fundamental laws of biblical thought that must be mastered, if anyone is to understand adequately the message of the Scriptures. Below I am giving the principal laws of interpretation that will be discussed, the Lord willing, in this series of articles:

I. The First Step in Interpretation.
II. The Second Step in Interpretation.
III. The Golden Rule in Interpretation.
IV. The Law of First Mention.
V. The Law of Double Reference.
VI. The Law of Recurrence.
VII. A Play on Words.
VIII. An Analysis of Figures of Speech.
IX. The Avoidance of Extreme Literalism.
X. The Law of the Contexts of Quotations.
XI. Hebrew Parallelism.
XII. Interpretation vs. Application.
XIII. Symbolic Language.
XIV. Comparing Scripture with Scripture.
XV. Studying Obscure Passages in the Light of Plain Ones.


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Reprinted by permission of the Biblical Research Society,
where other outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper may be accessed.