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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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 thirteen 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 that will span perhaps seventeen Shofars, we are engaging what will be our most extensive and detailed study thus far on the topic and continuing 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 apply ourselves. - Editor

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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 3: The Golden Rule of Interpretation:


In the discussion of the first step in interpreting the Scriptures, we saw that it is most important for the biblical reader to understand who the human author was, the one addressed, the times in which the writer lived, the occasion of his writing, and all facts that may be gathered in order to have the proper approach to any one passage of Scripture. In the discussion of the second step of interpreting the Scriptures, we also saw that one must gather the facts that are stated in any given passage and must note the exact language that is employed. When one has therefore followed these instructions to the best of his ability, he must observe what is properly called the golden rule of interpretation which is as follows:

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 sum and substance of this most important rule is that one should take every statement of the Scriptures at its plain face value, unless there are indications that a figurative or metaphorical meaning was intended by the original writer. In other words, one is to take the Scriptures as they are written and is not to attempt to read into the Sacred Writings his own ideas or the thoughts of men. Since this golden rule of interpretation is such a very important one, it becomes necessary for us to look at it more minutely.


The first part of this rule urges us to take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning - unless there is positive evidence pointing beyond this plain face meaning. Our words today have a history behind them. Originally, when words are coined, they represent a fundamental primary idea. Throughout the period of its being used, each word has taken on new shades of ideas, all of which as a rule are related to the fundamental original conception. Usually the inherent idea of a word still clings to it. There are of course exceptions to this general trend of the development of words. Certain terms have changed their meaning so very radically that they connote the exact opposite now from what they did originally. As an example of this, we may note the word "let." In the time the King James Version was translated, it meant to hinder. Today it means exactly the opposite - to permit, to allow. But this is a rather strange and extreme example of a word which changes its meaning entirely.

According to our rule we are to take the primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning. The adjective "primary" emphasizes the original, inherent idea in the term. "Ordinary" and "usual" are practically synonyms, especially in this definition, "usual" being employed for the sake of emphasis. The word "literal" is used to emphasize the thought that every word must be taken as referring to the actual thought of the time when it used. "Literal," therefore, is opposed to figurative or symbolic.

This part of the rule must be observed strictly; otherwise the interpreter will, in many instances, miss the meaning of the sacred writer. As an illustration of the importance of this part of our rule I wish to call attention to the statement found in Jonah 2:2,3:

And he said, I called by reason of mine affliction unto Jehovah, And he answered me; Out of the belly of Sheol cried I, And thou heardest my voice. For thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas. And the flood was round about me; All thy waves and thy billows passed over me.

The Prophet, in explaining how it was that he had been to Sheol, stated that he had been cast into the depth, that the flood had been round about him, and that the waves and billows had been passing over him. If we observe this part of our rules, we are to take the words, depth, flood, waves, and billows, literally as referring to water - unless there are indications showing that he did not use these terms literally. When we read chapter 1 we see that Jonah was thrown overboard and landed in the water - the literal sea. He was there in the depths. The flood was round about him; and the waves and billows were passing over him. To interpret Jonah 2:3 figuratively is to miss the meaning entirely. The presumption is that every word is to be taken at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless there are facts that indicate a departure from the face meaning. Some have ignored this important element of the rule and have insisted that it is used figuratively. In support of this contention those espousing this position have called attention to Psalm 69:2: I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. They triumphantly point to the fact that there are no waters in this passage, although David did use the words, waters and floods. They are correct in saying that there are no waters or floods in Psalm 69. How do we know that? The facts of the context point positively in the direction that these words are used figuratively. To read waters into this passage would be to do violence to the Scriptures and to inject into them a meaning that they do not have. On the other hand, to close one's eyes to the literal sea into which Jonah was thrown when he was cast from the ship is to do violence to the Book of Jonah. The author says that he was thrown out into the water and records the prophet's prayer while he was bobbing up and down in the water before he sank. Thus he spoke literally when he said that the flood was round about him and that the waves and the billows were passing over his head.


Though this point has been partially covered in discussing Jonah 2:3, it is such a vital element of our rule, I feel that I should emphasize it at this point. Possibly a violation or two of this principle will help to show emphatically why it is so very important. There are those of the rationalistic persuasion who do not believe that there ever was such a man as Abraham, the patriarch of whom we read in Genesis. If one should read Legends of Genesis by Gunkel, he would see how the rationalists break the force of the Scriptures arbitrarily and make them to mean something entirely different from what they say. They tell us that there was no such man as Abraham, the great progenitor of the Hebrew race. Having thus deprived us of this historical character, they proceed to explain to us how it is that the name of Abram, or Abraham, as it was later called, appears on the sacred page. According to the rationalistic theory the Jews, as they came in contact with other nations of antiquity, wanted to objectify their history as the nations did. They did this by inventing some great illustrious hero from whom they were descended. Instead of Israel's having descended from Abram, a resident of the Ur of Chaldea, they were simply the descendants of various nomadic tribes that wandered around in the Arabian Desert until they finally crossed over the border into the fertile crescent, into Palestine. The so-called historians of the eighth and ninth centuries B.C. drew upon their imaginations, created the characters, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and thus manufactured the history which we read in the Pentateuch and in the earlier historical portions of the Scriptures. It is hard for us who are in the habit of believing that the Bible is the very Word of God to see how men - brilliant, scholarly men - can deal with history and facts in such a fast and loose manner. But such is the logical outcome of the violation of this phase of the golden rule of interpretation.

In this connection I wish to call attention to what one of my old professors in the University of Chicago said in lecturing on Genesis. During his lecture (as I sat as a student in the class) he said that most scholars denied the historicity of the Hebrew patriarchs, and that he had taken the same position with reference to all of them at one time; however, he had changed his mind in regard to Abraham. The thing that caused him to revise his opinion regarding the Father of the Faithful was that a clay tablet had been discovered upon which the name Abram appeared. This man rented a wagon to another person in order that he might make a journey from Chaldea to the land of Ammuru, the westland. Think of it! A brilliant scholarly man denied the existence of Abraham, notwithstanding all that the Bible says about him. But that which caused him to change his opinion was a clay tablet on which the contract for renting a wagon was recorded. This account caused the learned professor to change his mind and to believe in the historicity of Abraham.

If a person can take a plain passage of Scripture, close his eyes to its real meaning, and read into it a figurative or symbolic meaning, he will be forced to do the same thing with related passages - if he is logical. In doing this, he is forced to reconstruct large sections of the Scripture and to impose upon them a meaning foreign to that of the original writer. When one has once adopted this method, one has no place to stop - short of a denial of the records and of forcing a meaning upon the Word of God contrary to all facts and reason. As we have seen above, the rationalistic critics have simply carried this spiritualizing process to its inevitable conclusion. Modernism and rationalism are the logical outgrowth of forcing a figurative meaning upon a passage that is clearly literal. In the light of these facts we can see how very important it is for us to apply the golden rule of interpretation rigidly to every passage in the Word of God.


Frequently one comes across a statement which is made with little detail. It is therefore difficult to study it simply in the light of its context. Whenever we come to such a passage as this, it becomes necessary for us to lay such a text beside a related one about which there can be no doubt, and concerning which there are full details. But we must be absolutely certain that the passage from which we hope to get light on the obscure one is dealing with the same subject and is relevant. False identification always brings confusion.

As an illustration of this principle, let us look at Psalm 2. In the first three verses we read of an international, atheistic, anti-Christian, religio-political convention, that meets for the purpose of putting the religion of Jehovah, the God of Israel, and His Messiah, the Christ, under the ban. That these verses foretell such a conference is evident from the fact that the delegates are the kings of the earth and the rulers. That it is an atheistic convention is evident from the fact that it is called together for the purpose of taking action against God. That it is an anti-Semitic congress is reflected in the fact that it is against Jehovah, the God who revealed Himself to Israel. That it is an anti-Christian gathering is also evident from the fact that action is taken against God's Anointed, God's Messiah, the Christ. That it is a religious convention is seen from the fact that it meets for the purpose of deciding whether or not the religion set forth in the Old Testament and that in the New is to be tolerated. That it is a political assembly is seen from the fact that politicians, the rulers and kings of the earth, are the delegates. Having learned that this passage foretells such a convention, we must if possible learn when it will occur. In vain we look at Psalm 2.

Some call our attention to the fact that the first two verses of this psalm are quoted in Acts 4:25,26 and are applied to the action Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Jewish Sanhedrin, and the people of Israel took against Jesus. What these did against the Lord Jesus is only a partial, limited, incomplete fulfillment of the prediction. Since such a gathering has never been called, and since the Word of God can never be broken, we may be certain that if will yet be convened in the future. When a person studies Daniel 9:36ff (11:36 - ed.), he will see that the willful king spoken of in this passage takes drastic action against all religion and puts forth his own type of divine service and imposes it upon humanity. This action he will take in the middle of the Tribulation, for there will be only three and one-half more years of it to run until it is finished. Thus when Psalm 2:1-3 is studied in connection with Daniel 11:36-12:13, the impression is immediately made that in all probability David in Psalm 2 was talking about the action that the willful king, the world dictator, will take in the middle of the Tribulation. When we pursue our studies a little further and investigate the teaching of Revelation, chapter 13, the profound conviction is made upon the mind that without doubt David in Psalm 2 was speaking of the events of Revelation, chapter 13. In this passage we read of a great beast who is none other than the Antichrist, and of the unparalleled role which he will play in world affairs. He forbids the nations of the world to worship any gods, even the true God; but demands that they worship him alone. His assistant, the second beast of this chapter, issues a decree that all shall take the mark of the beast upon their foreheads or their hands. These and other facts that are in Revelation, chapter 13, lead one to believe that the action of Psalm 2 is to be located in the middle of the Tribulation. Thus we interpret Psalm 2 in the light of a related passage, Revelation, chapter 13, which gives full details.

That part of our rule which we have under consideration says that we should study an obscure passage in the light of related ones and axiomatic and fundamental truths. God is the author of all axiomatic principles. We may be certain that whatever utterances are found in the Word are to be interpreted in the light of these axiomatic and fundamental truths. Usually there are related passages from which we can get light on obscure texts. But we can always be certain that no statement of Scripture sets aside axiomatic and fundamental principles. Hence we shall interpret all Scripture in the light of these axioms.


Having looked at the various parts of our rule, we are now in a position to apply it and see what results we have. Let us take the controverted passage of Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. The revelation found in Isaiah, chapter 7, was occasioned by an alliance formed by the king of Israel with the king of Syria to come against Jerusalem, to dethrone Ahaz, and to set up an appointee of the two kings. This report brought nothing but consternation to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The young king, Ahaz, began to inspect the water system, a vital factor in time of war and siege. To him God sent the Prophet Isaiah in order that he might strengthen his faith by giving a message from the Almighty. Ahaz, who had already initiated negotiations with the king of Assyria, to come to his assistance, did not wish to give up his ideas and plans. At the revelation of God Isaiah offered to perform a miracle either in the heavens above or in the depths, sea, beneath, according as the king wished. Hence the word rendered sign means either a miracle, something wrought by supernatural power, or an ordinary fact or event to which an arbitrary meaning might be attached. Since it has these two connotations, the context in which this word appears must be consulted to determine what is its exact meaning in such a case. It is clear that Isaiah meant by sign a miracle, for he offered to perform this sign either in the heavens above or in the sea beneath. This offer shows clearly what Isaiah meant by the word, sign - an act, the result of supernatural power.

Ahaz did not wish his faith to be strengthened because he did not wish to give up his plans and purposes. He therefore spurned the offer by a pious, hypocritical dodge. When he assumed this attitude, the prophet turned from such an impious one as he and addressed the house of David, saying, Is it a small thing for you [the Hebrew word is in the plural number] to weary men, that ye will weary my God also? which passage shows that the prophet was no longer talking to Ahaz as an individual, but to the royal house of David. Since the prophet was looking out into the future, we must conclude that he had not only the royal house of David then living in mind, but also those who would live in the future. To the regal house therefore he promised to give a sign, which is expressed in the verse, quoted above.

The birth of this child is miraculous. This conclusion we cannot avoid since, in the mention of the word, sign, to Ahaz, the prophet gave it a supernatural connotation. When Ahaz refused to ask the Lord to perform such a sign, the prophet was led to promise to the house of David that God would perform a sign in a sense similar to its meaning when he employed it the first time. Then he told us of what this supernatural sign would consist, namely, that the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, which means, "God with us." It is clear from the prophet's language that he was thinking of miraculous conception and virgin birth of the child who is promised to the house of David.

But there are those who say that the word rendered by the English term virgin means a young, married woman. This word occurs seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures. An examination of the other six occurrences in the light of their contexts leads unmistakably to the conviction that the word here used indicates an unmarried woman of marriageable age. (I have discussed this question fully in my volume, Messiah: His Nature and Person.) There are two occurrences of musical notations in the Psalms which may be our same word modified and with a different connotation. But they have no bearing upon the issue now under discussion. Thus a thorough understanding of the word here rendered virgin makes the profound conviction upon the mind of the truth seeker that Isaiah promised the house of David that there would be miraculously conceived and born of a virgin one who would be recognized as God in human form. Hence His name would be called, according to Isaiah, Immanuel - "God with us," or, "God is with us."

The facts of this chapter through verse 14 demand this interpretation. By no sleight-of-hand tricks or mental gymnastics can any other meaning logically be forced upon this passage. We must accept it as a promise of the virgin birth of King Messiah.

But, in verses 15-17, we read of another child, whose birth was to be out in the immediate future from the time of the prophet's speaking this prediction. This fact is seen by the statement that this child would be eating butter and honey, when he was old enough to know to refuse the evil and to choose the good. Moreover, before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land of the kingdoms of Israel and of Syria would be devastated. We know from contemporary history, as it has been recovered from the monuments of the Assyrian monarchs, that, beginning about 734 B.C., Syria was laid waste, and that, by 719 B.C., the kingdom of Israel likewise was overthrown and trodden down. Since these lands were to be devastated before the child would know to choose the good and refuse the evil, and since we know when those lands were overrun, we know that in verses 15-17 the prophet was talking about a child that would be born in his day. Some have thought that this child was that of the prophet himself, for in 8:1-4 Isaiah tells about the birth of his son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz.

If we are to let the record give forth its message just as written, we cannot avoid the conclusion that there are two children mentioned in these verses. The evidence is very plain and positive to this effect, but the description of the one is blended with that of the other. But such a method of revelation is not strange to the one who is familiar with the Old Testament predictions. Frequently we see that two events, separated by a long period of time, are mentioned together. As an illustration of this, see Zechariah 9:9,10: 9. Rejoice greatly, 0 daughter of Zion; shout, 0 daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy king cometh unto thee; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon the foal of an ass. 10. And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off; and he shall speak peace unto the nations: and his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. An examination of verse 9 show that the prophet was speaking of the first coming of the Messiah. A study of verse 10 shows unmistakably that in it Zechariah was speaking of the second coming of Christ. Thus between verses 9 and 10 intervenes the entire Christian Dispensation. Nevertheless, there is no indication of this separating period. A blending of descriptions regarding two other widely separated events may be seen again in such a passage as Jeremiah 29:9,10 which speaks of the restoration of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, and which was fulfilled by Zerubbabel and Joshua, who brought back the captives to the Holy Land. Jeremiah 29:11-14 gives a prediction of Israel's world-wide regathering in the time of the end. Thus between verses 10 and 11 intervenes the period between Israel's restoration from Babylon and her final restoration in the end time. The principle of blending such widely-removed events and presenting them as one picture is known as the law of double reference and might be illustrated by the stereopticon lantern that gives the dissolving effect. This machine throws one picture upon the screen. As the audience looks at it, the picture begins to fade. At the same time the dim outlines of another picture begin to appear. By the time the first one has disappeared, the second one is in full view. This is a perfect illustration of the law of double reference. When we recognize this fact and read Isaiah, chapter 7, with a knowledge of this principle and allow the words to deliver their message to us unmodified by human opinion, we come to the conclusion that two different children are mentioned in the passage, and that they are real children. The first one mentioned is the virgin-born Messiah, the Saviour of the world: the second one was a child who was born in the immediate future from the standpoint of the prophet. Thus we get a clear picture of the prophecy when we apply the golden rule of interpretation and recognize the law of double reference, which principle will be studied later in this series of articles.

From all that has been said it is clear that the golden rule of interpretation is one of the most important principles governing us in our interpretation of the Scriptures. If we follow this rule, we shall not go very far wrong: it we fail to follow it, we shall never go right.

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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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