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


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.

Thus far in this series we've been treated to much 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 that will span perhaps seventeen Shofars, let us continue to hone our skills in rightly dividing the Word of Truth that we might be clear and accurate voices for the Lord. To read or review prior studies, please see links in our Library. Let us now apply ourselves. - ed.


Dr. David L. Cooper

Part Three: Rules of Interpretation Proper

"The knowledge of certain rules of interpretation and the observance of these rules when studying the Scriptures is very important and helpful in arriving at a clear understanding of God's Word."

Rule 5: The LAW OF double reference

The fifth law of interpretation is THE LAW OF DOUBLE REFERENCE

The Law of Double Reference is the principle of associating similar or related ideas which are usually separated from one another by long period of times, and which are blended into a single picture like the blending of pictures by a stereopticon.

Study the following passages of Scripture and determine where the Law of Double Reference was employed:

  • Psalm 16:1-11

  • Psalm 22:1-31

  • Psalm 40:l-10

  • Isaiah 11:1-5

  • Jeremiah 29:10-14.

EXPLANATION OF The LAW OF double reference

THE NEXT PRINCIPLE for investigation in our study of Hermeneutics is what is termed the law of double reference. We are now in a position to study this most important rule, which is found through the prophetic portion of the Word. We have seen that the basic rule of all interpretation is what is properly called the golden rule of interpretation, which insists upon our taking every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages, demand a departure from the literal, ordinary meaning and require that we understand a passage as figurative or metaphorical. When we have mastered this rule until we can apply it unconsciously to our Bible study, and when we have made a note of the fact that we must recognize the law of first mention, we are then in a position to study the law of double reference.


The law of double reference is based upon one of the fundamental laws of psychology: the principle of the association of similar or related ideas. Similarities always suggest comparisons. Thus the prophets constantly depicted that which was as a rule in the immediate future or present. Since history repeats itself, as all admit, the prophets looked out into the future and saw similar situations arising like those which were confronting them or immediately in the future. Thus the transition from describing that which was immediately before them to that which was in the remote future was very easy, normal, and natural.

This principle has been illustrated by mountain scenery. I recall traveling through the western prairies of the province of Alberta and approaching the Canadian Rockies. In the distance, as our train was speeding along, I could see the low-lying hills, as they rose from the plains. But towering above them in the far distance, I could see larger and higher mountains. Upon reaching the summit of the nearer mountains, or the foothills, I could see a long valley separating this range from the higher and more massive ones still in the distance. But as I was approaching the foothills, the valley separating the two ranges was not visible. This little phenomenon, familiar to all peoples, may enable us to understand how it was that the prophets spoke of something in the immediate future or present in their day and then blended this description with a situation that would arise in the distant future.

I may also emphasize this principle by calling attention to a stereopticon lantern that gives the dissolving effect. One picture is thrown upon a screen. The audience sits, rapt with attention, enjoying the sight. Presently the members of the group notice that the scene is beginning to fade, or become dim. Then there presently appear the faint outlines of another picture. By the time the first one has disappeared from the screen, the second one is in full view. Speaking in terms, then, of the pictures of the stereopticon, I would say that the prophets threw upon the screen the picture of the present or immediate future and then, when this picture began to fade, the dim outlines of another and more distant one began to be thrown before the gaze of the audience. Finally the first picture disappears entirely and the observer sees only the second one.

The student must be very careful in reaching the conclusion that the principle of double reference obtains in a given place. Every word of a description must be taken at its primary, usual literal meaning, unless the facts studied in the light of related passages indicates otherwise. In other words, we must believe that the prophets were honest and capable of expressing themselves exactly as they thought and as the truth was revealed to them. We are never justified in interpreting a passage as an illustration of the law of double reference unless there are facts that show positively that the speaker ceased to talk about the thing immediately before him and began to describe something in the distant future. The facts of the context alone are to guide one in this particular. When the student sees that the prophet went far beyond his own day and time and was describing a second scene but a different one, then and only then, must he call to his aid the principle of the law of double reference or a manifold fulfillment of prophecy. A careless observance of this rule will only lead to endless confusion and misunderstanding.

When anyone is convinced that the facts in a passage indicate that the prophet was following the principle of double reference and he interprets the passage upon that principle, he should by all means check his interpretation of the facts by other passages which are plain and positive, and about which he cannot be mistaken. Understanding these general principles, we are now in a position to examine certain passages of the Scriptures illustrative of these fundamentals.


The first example to which I wish to call attention is Psalm 16. I ask the reader to stop at this moment, return to this psalm, and read it very carefully. Everyone who does this will be well repaid--many-fold.

In the first seven verses David, the human author of this poem, used the personal pronouns I, me, my, and mine. Everything that appears in these verses was literally true of David and of the experiences through which he passed. Thus if we follow the ordinary rules of interpretation, we are to apply everything in these verses to the historic King David, the author of the poem.

But when we look at verses 8-11, we see that he still uses the personal pronouns (I, me, my, and mine) of the first person. At the same time we know that David did not enjoy the experiences that are mentioned here. To show that David was not speaking of his own experiences, I will quote these last four verses.

8 I have set Jehovah always before me: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: My flesh also shall dwell in safety. 10 For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption. 11 Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fullness of Joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore (Ps. 16:8-11).

The historic David did not keep the Lord always before him. He got his eyes off the Lord and fell, sinning most miserably and wretchedly. One unconfessed sin called for another, and that one, still unconfessed, called for another. David was enmeshed in a series of moral lapses and sins. He certainly was moved. His heart was not always glad. Neither did his soul rejoice; and his flesh was not always dwelling in safety. Moreover, when he died, he went to Sheol and, so far as the record goes, remained there. His body was placed in the tomb and saw corruption--that is, decomposition and decay. When he went down into Sheol, the Lord did not point out to him the path of life and he did not come forth.

But the one of whom David actually speaks in these verses always had the Lord before Him; He was never moved; He was never guilty of a moral lapse. His heart rejoiced in God, His soul was glad, and His flesh always dwelt in safety. God was protecting Him. He died. His body was laid in the tomb. His spirit went to Sheol. But, according to this prediction, He comes forth. His spirit re-enters the body and He comes forth, bringing life and immortality to light--showing that there is a blessed life of immortality out beyond death. Everything, therefore, in verses 8-16 shows that though David did speak thus, he was not describing his own experience.

Of whom then, was he speaking? Being a prophet and knowing God had sworn with an oath that of the fruit of his loins he would raise one to sit upon his throne, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, his Greater Son. David was a type of the Messiah, being an anointed one who sat upon the throne of Judah. It was natural for him, upon the principles set forth in the first part of this article, to speak of his own experiences and then to be carried by the Spirit of God into the future and to move in a circle of experiences that far transcended any through which he passed. We therefore know that he was speaking of the Messiah in the latter part of the psalm. This psalm, therefore, is an illustration of the principle of double reference, or the manifold fulfillment of prophecy. See Acts, chapter two.

LET us now look to Psalm 22 which was also written by David. In the first twenty-one verses it is clear that David, though he began by speaking of some personal experiences of his own, was describing those of the Messiah, who would be crucified for the sins of the world. That verses 1-21 was a prediction of the crucifixion of the Messiah has been held by all believing scholars in the Christian world throughout the present Dispensation. This portion of the psalm was thus interpreted by the Apostles and the early church and has been accepted as the correct position throughout the Christian centuries. In the latter part of this first section, in verses 19-21, we see the silent Sufferer finally expiring, gasping His last, yet with confidence that God would hear His cry and deliver Him.

In verses 22-31, however, the scene has been changed. A great transformation has taken place. There is a gap between verses 21 and 22. This break of thought is properly expressed by the translators of the American Standard Version in that they left a break between those verses, that is, a space, indicating a gap in time and change of thought. In verses 22-31 we see this one come back to life again. He is in the midst of the great assembly of the redeemed. He is praising the Lord for what He has done for Him and through Him; and He it is who takes the kingdom of the world into His own strong hands and accepts the reverence, worship, and filial obedience of all nations. He is the triumphant Messiah and Redeemer of the world.

Thus in the first twenty-one verses we see the Messiah as He makes the supreme sacrifice of laying down His life for His people at His first coming. In the second section we see Him, after He has made that sacrifice, and after He has come forth from the other world and at His second coming, when He takes the world into His own hands and establishes a world-wide reign of righteousness--which thing He will do at His second coming. Thus in this psalm we see an illustration of the law of double reference.

WE may turn to Psalm 40 and read the first ten verses. This hymn was written by the human author, David, king of Israel. He uses the personal pronouns of the first person, I, me, my. Everything that is said in the first five verses was true of the historic King David. About this position there can be absolutely no question whatsoever.

But when we consider verses 6-10 we see that they go far beyond any experience that David ever had. Because of the importance of these verses I wish to quote them:

6 Sacrifice and offering thou hast no delight in; Mine ears hast thou opened:
Burnt-offering and sin-offering hast thou not required.
7 Then said I, Lo, I am come; In the roll of the book it is written of me:
8 I delight to do thy will, 0 my God; Yea, thy law is within my heart.
9 I have proclaimed glad tidings of righteousness in the great assembly;
Lo, I will not refrain my lips, 0 Jehovah, thou knowest.
10 I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation;
I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great assembly (Ps. 40: 6-10).

David could under no conditions say that God did not delight in sacrifices and offerings, "burnt-offering and sin-offering," and that therefore he had come to do the will of God in respect to these sacrifices. No mortal man could claim this. Those sacrifices had a typical meaning, as everyone who knows the Scriptures realizes. Here the author of the verses under consideration declares that these offerings are insufficient, do not do the will of God, and do not meet the question of sin at all. They had their function to perform and were used of God in performing this function. But here the writer or speaker of these verses declares that He himself is able to do the will of God with reference to the sin question which those sacrifices could never accomplish. When we realize this, and when we realize the further truth that "in the roll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do thy will, 0 my God; Yea, thy law is within my heart," we know that the one who is doing the speaking here is none other than the Messiah of Israel, the Saviour of humanity, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The facts of the first five verses demand that we understand them as referring to David. There is no negative evidence pointing in an opposite direction. But all of the evidence of verses 6-10 shows positively that, although David did use the personal pronouns of the first person, he was not speaking of himself; but, being a prophet of God and knowing the promises that God had made to him, he spoke for his Greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This passage, therefore, is an illustration of the principle of the law of double reference.

LET us now turn to Isaiah, chapter 11, and read carefully the first ten verses. When we study the first two verses of this passage, we know that the prophet Isaiah was speaking of the Messiah and of His coming to the earth to redeem the world, which verses were fulfilled at the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. All conservative scholars are agreed on this point.

But in verses 3-5 we see a prediction which will be fulfilled only when the Lord Jesus returns in glory and power to judge the world. That you, dear reader, may see this I quote these verses: "3 And his delight shall be in the fear of Jehovah; and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither decide after the hearing of his ears; 4 but with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth: and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. 5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins" (Isa. 11:3-5).

When our Lord was here the first time, He refused to become an arbiter in the settling of an estate. He pronounced judgment upon no one in the sense of a judge who renders a legal decision. Because He is the Son of man, as we learn in John 5:26,27, God has committed all judgment to Him. He will play this role when He returns, which event will take place at the end of the Tribulation.

This prediction, dealing with Christ's judging the world at His second coming, is followed by one in verses 6-9 which deals with the lifting of the curse and with the freeing of the animal creation from the bondage of the curse which fell upon all creation when man disobeyed God. The lifting of the curse we know does not occur until Christ returns. Then in verse 10 of this chapter we see a short, glorious description of Jerusalem as it will be when our Lord reigns there personally in glory.

When we thus examine all of these verses, 1-10, we see that verses 1 and 2 refer to the first coming. Between verses 2 and 3 the entire Christian Dispensation intervenes. It is passed over without a single reference to it. Then verses 3-10 apply to what will occur at the return of our Lord. In this passage, therefore, we have an application of the principle of double reference, the blending of two widely separated events by a long period of time--the two comings of the one Messiah, separated by the Christian Dispensation.

In Jeremiah, chapter 29, we have a letter which the prophet, who was in Jerusalem, wrote to the captives who went when Jehoiachin was carried by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon. The exiles were restive and were being stirred up by false prophets who declared that they would soon have the privilege of returning to the land of their nativity in the very near future. In order to counteract these false prophecies, Jeremiah wrote to the captives and declared that they would have to remain there for seventy years. They were therefore to settle down to a quiet, orderly life and to wait the time when God would bring them back. This is set forth in Jeremiah 29:10,11 which I now quote: "For thus saith Jehovah, After seventy years are accomplished for Babylon, I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. 11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith Jehovah, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you hope in your latter end." In order for God to carry out His plan for Israel yet in the future, Jeremiah said that the Lord would have to bring them back from exile at the end of the seventy years, just as He had foretold in chapter 25 of this book.

In verses 12-14, however, we have a different prophecy which is as follows: "And ye shall call upon me, and I will hearken unto you. 13 And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. 14 And I will be found of you, saith Jehovah, and I will turn again your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith Jehovah; and I will bring you again unto the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive." Here we see the promise that God would turn Israel's captivity again and would gather them from all the nations and from all the places to which He had driven them and would bring them again into their own land. This is a regathering and a restoration from a world-wide dispersion. Jeremiah promised this restoration when Israel seeks God with all of her heart and soul. This prophecy was not fulfilled at the end of the seventy years of the Babylonian captivity. There were approximately fifty thousand Jews who returned under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The bulk of the captives remained in Babylon. But the restoration mentioned in verses 12-14 is yet out in the future. It is the second restoration that God will accomplish for Israel when He puts forth His hand to gather them from the places whither they have been scattered, even from the four corners of the earth.

In view of these facts we see that the period from the first restoration after the Exile to the final restoration of Israel to the land of the fathers is passed over between 11 and 12. Thus there is a blending of the two restorations in this one prediction. This passage therefore is an example of the law of double reference.

The prophets often resorted to this method of presenting their messages. It becomes absolutely necessary that the student of prophecy master this principle of double or manifold fulfillment of prophecy, if he is to get a clear-cut picture of the messages of the prophets. To this end may the Lord bless this little exposition is my sincere longing and prayer.


Links to prior studies in the "Rules of Interpretation" series may found in our Library.

Reprinted by permission of the Biblical Research Society, where other outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper may be found.
Links to the entire "Rules of Interpretation" series may be found at
A brief biography of Dr. Cooper may also be found on the Biblical Research Society home page.

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