How to Read and Understand the Bible
How to Read and Understand the Bible
When reading and trying to understand the Bible, you have three helpers. First, you have the Holy Spirit living in you (1 Corinthians 2:2–16). Second, you have the help of the church. It would be arrogant to think that the Holy Spirit only speaks to me. He has spoken to others in history and he continues to speak to his people. Paul prays that ‘you may have power to comprehend, with all the saints’ (Ephesians 3:18, NRSV). Third, you have the benefit of reason – your mind. Paul encourages each person to be ‘fully convinced in their own minds’ (Romans 14:5).
In interpreting the Bible, there are three main questions you need to ask:
What does it actually say?
The Old Testament is written in Hebrew (and Aramaic), and the New Testament in Greek. But you can be confident that most modern translations are trustworthy and accurate.
What does it mean?
In order to answer this question, you have to ask: What sort of literature is it? Is it historical writing? Poetry? Prophecy? Apocalyptic? Law? Wisdom? Gospel? The passages for today are each different types of literature (poetry, apocalyptic and history), and therefore we read them in different ways.
Next, ask what it meant to the person who first wrote it, and to those who first read or heard it. Then ask, ‘Has anything happened subsequently to alter our understanding?’ For example, what difference does the coming of Jesus make to our understanding of Old Testament passages? Ultimately the Bible is all about Jesus (see John 5:39–40).
How does this apply to my life?
To avoid it becoming a mere intellectual exercise, you must think through how it applies to your daily living.
Be real with God (poetry)Psalm 144:9–15
God wants us to be real with him. The Psalms are not prayers from nice people using polite language. They are often raw, earthy and rough; they are an honest, true and personal response to God.
The Psalms are written in the language of poetry. The poet, Robert Burns, wrote, ‘My love is like a red, red rose.’ He did not mean it literally.
Much of the language of theology involves comparison. When two things are compared it does not mean they are alike in all respects.
‘Make our sons in their prime
like sturdy oak trees,
Our daughters as shapely and bright
as fields of wildflowers’ (v.12, MSG).
The Psalms also express very human sentiments. For example, in our passage for today the psalmist writes, ‘Deliver me and rescue me from the hands of foreigners whose mouths are full of lies, whose right hands are deceitful’ (v.11).
Obviously, it is not true that all foreigners are liars and deceivers. But the Psalms sometimes express anger towards God and vindictiveness towards others. It does not mean that these feelings are right, but they are candid responses, which many of us also feel at different times in our lives.
David was in the midst of war and was being attacked regularly by foreign city states. Armed conflict was a fact of life for him, and it is against this backdrop that he thanks God for training his hands for war. Yet this does not imply that we should emulate these sentiments. Both in the New Testament and in the Old Testament we are supposed to have a special love for foreigners and outsiders.
However, there are other sentiments that you can be inspired to follow. For example, David’s words in verse 9 inspire us to worship. He goes on to speak of his longing for God’s blessing on his family, his work and the security of his nation. He ends, ‘Blessed are the people of whom this is true; blessed are the people whose God is the Lord’ (v.15).
Lord, thank you that your blessing is on the church – the people whose God is the Lord. I worship you today and pray for your blessing on my family, work, ministry, city and nation.
Make a difference by your prayers (apocalyptic)Revelation 8:1–9:12
Apocalyptic literature is the literature of dreams and visions, of divine mysteries and the end of history. It is full of symbols that need to be decoded. In it we are given glimpses of things that are often at the very limits of human understanding; the complicated and fantastic imagery can help us begin to grasp things that are beyond comprehension.
Apocalyptic literature is notoriously difficult to interpret. Within the Bible it is found in several places – especially the books of Daniel and Revelation.
Typically, the reading from the apocalyptic writing for today is not easy to understand. It appears to be Christ calling the world to repentance and his warning of the coming judgment.
Before the judgment: ‘Heaven fell quiet – complete silence for about half an hour’ (8:1, MSG). During this period of trembling suspense, all of heaven is silenced, possibly symbolising the opportunity for the prayers of God’s people to be presented to and heard by God.
The seven trumpets (v.2) suggest he is doing everything in his power to bring us to repentance. God’s desire is to warn us of the inevitable consequences of our ways. The first four trumpets herald damage to nature (vv.6–13). There is environmental disaster (v.7), chaos in creation (vv.8–9), human tragedy (vv.10–11) and harm to the cosmos (v.12). Then the fifth and sixth angels herald damage to human beings (9:1–21).
In the midst of this, you can see the importance of your prayers. ‘Another angel… was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints… The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand’ (8:3–4). The exact effect of the prayers is not clear, but what is clear is that your prayers are heard by God. Your prayers matter. They make a difference.
We live in the time between the first and the second coming of Christ. We see evidence of much of what is written about in these chapters happening in our world. Our response should be repentance and prayer.
Lord, I want to examine my own life and repent of any known sins. Thank you that you hear my prayers and that they make a difference.
Fulfil God’s purpose for your life (history)Ezra 1:1–2:67
God has a purpose for your life. You are called to do something special for him. The book of Ezra shows us that even when it is God’s plan, there will be plenty of opposition and resistance. But God is with you (1:3) and God’s plans will ultimately succeed.
In the book of Ezra, we find ourselves in the more familiar territory of history. The historical books of the Bible are not simply records of what happened, they also provide interpretations of the events they describe. Historical writing was seen as a prophetic activity, both recording the facts and explaining or revealing how God was at work through the events that are described.
The opening verse of Ezra is an excellent example of this bringing together of fact and interpretation: ‘In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing’ (v.1). (Contemporary inscriptions show that Cyrus king of Persia allowed other captive nations to return home as well.)
At the same time the writer explains the significance of these historical events. He highlights how they fulfilled the earlier prophecy of Jeremiah that the exile would last approximately seventy years (Jeremiah 25:12 and 29:10). This is not just a lesson in ancient history; it is a revelation of God. It shows us God’s faithfulness to his people; it reminds us that he is a saving God, and it demonstrates how he is in command and control of history.
The events Ezra describes in these chapters took place in 536 BC. After seventy years of decline, defeat and exile there was a new beginning as God’s people were allowed to return home.
Cyrus’ decree allowed the Jews to return and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Ezra focuses on rebuilding the temple, and Nehemiah on the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. However, their underlying motives were exactly the same. They were concerned for God’s glory and God’s people. Both, in their different ways fulfilled God’s purpose for their lives.
Today, it is the same for you. You have a unique purpose for your life. We all have different projects, depending on our different jobs, passions and giftings, but your underlying motive should be the same – a concern for God’s glory and God’s people. God will fulfil his purpose for you.
Lord, I want to be available for you to fulfil your purpose for me. May my life bring glory to your name.
I have just waded through the long list of names returning from exile in Ezra 2. They counted people because people count.
Verse of the Day
‘… blessed are the people whose God is the LORD’ (Psalm 144:15).
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.