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 fifteen 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. - ed.

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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."


HAVING STUDIED the first step in interpretation, the second step in interpretation, and the golden rule of interpretation we are now ready for the fourth principle of interpretation, which may be properly designated as: The law of first mention. Those who have followed the series thus far can see that this is the next step logically to take in this most important line of thought.


Life and experience teach us that the only proper way to study or investigate anything is to begin with the simple and go to the complex; to start with the fundamental, basic principle and then to develop the subject in its complexities. A glance at the history of the development of anything shows that everything which we have now in our modern life sprang from something in the very simplest form. For example, consider the steam engine. From our standpoint the first one invented was the very embodiment of simplicity, with practically no controlling gadgets. As this most useful invention was developed, more devices were invented that tended to increase the efficiency of the engine. Today the modern locomotive is complexity almost to the nth degree. In the Smithsonian Institute at Washington we have some of the very earliest models of the airplane. A glance at them and a comparison of them with present-day modern planes reveals the fact that the first machines were simplicity itself in comparison with the models of today.

The growth and development of ideas and doctrines might be illustrated by some simple word. An examination of a lexicon or a dictionary shows the root, fundamental meaning of the words. Throughout the history of a term it has increased its meaning and has changed certain shades of ideas. Yet the basic, original fundamental thought is seldom ever lost. The fact is that this fundamental concept usually controls or is dominant in coloring every shade of idea expressed by a term in its current usage. This may be verified by looking at various words in an unabridged dictionary.

From the facts just stated, we can see the importance of studying the simplest form of a machine and of the subsequent models in order to understand the very latest one. The same thing is true with reference to words of all languages. This same fundamental idea is also applicable to the study of doctrine. In order for anyone to understand the fundamentals of Christianity as revealed in the New Testament, it becomes necessary for him to understand the principle that is designated as the law of first mention.


The law of first mention may be said to be the principle that requires one to go to that portion of the Scriptures where a doctrine is mentioned for the first time and to study the first occurrence of the same in order to get the fundamental inherent meaning of that doctrine. When we thus see the first appearance, which is usually in the simplest form, we can then examine the doctrine in other portions of the Word that were given later. We shall see that the fundamental concept in the first occurrence remains dominant as a rule, and colors all later additions to that doctrine. In view of this fact, it becomes imperative that we understand the law of first mention.


The book of Genesis has Properly been called the "seed-plot" of the Bible. The word, Genesis, comes from the Greek expression which in its verbal form means to begin, or, to come into existence. This first book of the revelation of God is properly called, therefore, "the book of beginnings." According to its name and its position in the canon, one naturally expects an account of the beginnings of things. When anyone studies it, he is not disappointed. In this short exposition I wish to call attention to seven fundamental doctrines that are found in this "Book of Beginnings." The basic concept that is here presented is enlarged upon and enriched by later statements and discussions of the same facts or principles.

A. The Creation of the Universe

The account of the beginning of the universe, the disaster which overtook the primitive earth, and the reconstruction and the repairing of this damage, together with the beginning of the present human race, are set forth in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3. This passage gives us, in panoramic form, a clear-cut definite idea of the past and points to things future from the standpoint of "the days of reconstruction." In the first verse, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, we see that portion of eternity which antedated time and the creation of the material universe. But in the second verse we see that a cataclysmic catastrophe wrecked the earth and reduced it to a chaotic condition. Nothing, however is said with reference to the damage wrought throughout the rest of the material universe. There are, however, little hints here and there in later passages of the Scripture that throw some light upon this question.

There were six days of reconstruction, during which God was engaged in repairing, to a certain extent, the damage that had been wrought. It was impossible for Him, under His moral government, to restore the primitive, sinless order. He therefore repaired the wreckage that was necessary in order that He might create man in His own image, to whom He would give authority and dominion over the entire earth and all of its denizens. But man, as we shall learn later, forfeited his right and authority to dominion over the world. Knowing God as we do, we may be certain that He would not be thwarted in His plans and purposes by any of the machinations of Satan and of his wicked purposes. In keeping with this general thought, we see that Psalm 8 takes up this very idea and shows that God will restore to man his forfeited authority, and that He will do that by paying man a special visit. Psalm 8 looks out, therefore, into the future, is quoted in Hebrews, chapter 2, and is applied to the great Kingdom Age of the future. Thus when we grip all of these facts, we can see that eternity past and time - the period during which the present material universe is in existence - are presented in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3, together with the eighth psalm and Hebrews, chapter 2, which are the outgrowth of the Genesis original. Thus these passages give us in general the outline of the developments of the Almighty's plans from eternity in the past out to the end of the Millennial Age. Everything else that is mentioned in the Scriptures fits into this general picture. Without this plan of the ages, one is unable to locate and to pigeonhole, figuratively speaking, events that are referred to in the subsequent writings of the Scriptures. In view of the facts just mentioned, one can see that it is of the utmost importance that we study carefully and microscopically the first account of the creation of the heavens and the earth, of the primitive disaster which wrecked the earth, of God's repairing the damage wrought, and His creating man upon it. Man, as we shall see, is an immortal spirit, who lives on after his earthly life has passed. He is destined to live somewhere throughout all eternity. Thus there is laid in this first portion of the Scriptures the fundamental outline of eternity past, of time, and of eternity throughout the ages of the ages which follow the great Millennial Era.

B. The Creation of Man

We are told that, on the first day, God created the fishes of the sea and the great sea monsters and the fowls of the air. On the sixth day He created the land animals, that were docile, and that lived in peace with the others.

But, before the Lord finished His creative activity, there was a conference held by the Godhead, in which the three personalities constituting the one true God participated: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. They decided to make man in their own image and in their likeness. No such conference as this was held, so far as the Scriptures are concerned, in regard to the making of the beasts of the field or the monsters of the sea. In this conference a decision was reached to make man in the image of God. There are the three personalities of the Godhead, and yet they all have the same image. They are therefore of the same nature, substance, and essence. To see one is to see the other. To deal with one is to deal with the other. Though they are three personalities, they are one in a different sense. Thus there is reflected in the account of the creation of man the plurality and the unity of the Godhead and of man's being patterned after the Holy Trinity.

God gave to the animals their natural or physical life with very limited intelligence - when compared with man. The animals have never given any evidence of development throughout the centuries. The first nest that a bird makes is just as good as the last one that it makes. The species has not improved in its architecture. What is said of the birds may be said correctly of all animals. The beaver, for instance, does things by instinct and not by reason, logic, and progress.

God made man's body out of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of lives and he became a living soul, an immortal spirit. That which was imparted to him and made to dwell within him is called a living soul or immortal spirit. Nothing like this was given to the beasts of the field. It is this immortal spirit that differentiates him, therefore, from the animal kingdom. This superiority of man over the beast is reflected in the fact that God authorized man to add the flesh of animals to his diet, whereas He forbade man to kill his fellow-being (Genesis 9:1ff). The fact that man may take those animals that are good for food, kill them, and eat them shows that the animals do not have an immortal spirit. But the prohibition against one man's killing another proves that man is on a much higher level than that of the animal. That which makes man superior to the animal is, as we have already seen, God's breathing into man's nostrils the breath of lives and his becoming an immortal spirit.

The account of God's creating man thus in this manner, as we see in Genesis, chapters 1 and 2, emphasizes the importance of our studying the first account that we have of man in the Holy Writings. All that we learn of man as to his constitution and of the place which he has in the plan of God fits into this original conception. Thus the basic teachings found in these original passages are essential to our understanding other references to him and to his future.

C. The Doctrine of Sin

When God placed man in the Garden of Eden, He gave him the privilege of eating of the fruit of all the trees therein, with the exception of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Concerning it the Lord said: The day that thou eatest thereof, dying thou shalt surely die (Genesis 2:17, lit. trans.). In Genesis, chapter 3, we see that man disobeyed the Lord and partook of the fruit of this forbidden tree. When he did this, he had a new experience, one that he had not anticipated. For the first time he and his wife had the sense of shame in the presence of each other and in the presence of God who came visiting them on different occasions. Thus when the Lord made His first visit to them after they had sinned, they tried to cover their nakedness with robes of fig leaves. They also hid, or attempted to hide, from His presence.

When the Lord came and talked with them, He told them that the curse had fallen upon them and upon the earth. As a result of this disobedience there would be sickness and disease, which ultimately would result in death. The earth would bring forth thorns and thistles. Man would have to wrench his daily food from the earth in the sweat of his face. All of these facts indicate that some great change came over the world and the sphere of the human family, when man disobeyed the one and only prohibition that the Lord placed upon him. This which entered the world had changed his nature as well as had affected the earth. This fundamental conception of sin lies engraven upon the account of the first mention of disobedience in the Word of God.

As we study the Word, this conception will appear throughout the Scriptures. New shades of ideas will be added to it. The classic passage, however, which goes into a detailed account of the nature of sin is Romans, chapter 7. In this passage the Apostle in a figure transferred to himself the case of man in general. What a person in his sober moments desires to do, he is unable to carry to completion. What he does not want to do, he very often does. Paul declares that, if such is anyone's experience, it is not he who does it, but sin which dwelleth in me (Romans 7:17). From this statement we see that sin in the scriptural sense of the term is basically an evil, wicked force which drives man to do things that he knows he should not, and which prevents his doing those things that his better nature dictates to him to do. The information therefore which we get when we first read about the entrance of sin into the world is basic to our understanding of the sin doctrine as it is set forth in this fullest statement concerning it in Romans, chapter 7.

D. Sacrifices

When man first disobeyed God and tried to cover his nakedness with fig leaves, the Lord gave him a covering made from the skins of animals: And Jehovah God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21). Instantly one asks, From what source were those skins derived? There can be but one answer which is that the Lord slew animals, took their skins, and made clothing out of them for His disobedient children. Why the skins of animals? Why did He not make clothing out of something else besides the skins of animals? This is a legitimate question. It is not answered in this account. But when anyone turns to the fourth chapter of Genesis and reads the account of Cain and Abel's bringing offerings to the Lord, and when he studies this historical account carefully, he arrives at a very definite conclusion with reference to this subject. Abel, as we learn, by faith brought of his flocks sacrifices which he made to the Lord, to atone for sin. Cain, his brother, substituting his wisdom for that of God and his desires for the commandments of the Lord, brought of the fruit of the field an offering to God.

The Lord, we are told, had respect unto Abel and to his offering, because he did it by faith. Evidently the Lord had instructed him just what type of sacrifice to bring and the spirit in which it should be done. We cannot avoid this conclusion when we read Hebrews, chapter 11, and find there that Abel by faith brought his sacrifice. The fact that the Lord rejected the vegetable sacrifice which Cain brought shows that his offering was not acceptable. He did not do it by faith. He failed to follow the Lord's instructions but instead substituted his own wisdom and ideas for those of God. Thus in this case we see that the fundamental idea of sacrifice is that of meeting the demands of a holy and righteous God. Thus there is a very close connection between the animal sacrifices and man's being acceptable in the sight of his Maker.

Thus we see from these first intimations concerning sacrifices the fundamental conception underlying such offerings. This conception is enlarged and enriched by later revelations which show that the animal sacrifices under the Mosaic economy were simply typical of the real sacrifice made by the Lord Jesus Christ nineteen hundred years ago on Calvary's cross. Thus the original idea of sacrifice runs through all the instructions and the teachings concerning sacrifices that are found in the Book.

E. Biblical Chronology

Throughout the Old Testament there are hundreds upon hundreds of dates here and there in the Scriptures. God is careful to give the age of various ones of His servants. This is seen by looking at Genesis, chapters 5 and 11. In various portions of Genesis we are given data concerning the year of the birth of a certain one, how old this one was at a given crisis in his life, and when he died. In the Books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we have quite a bit of chronological data. In the Book of Joshua there are a few passages that bear upon this subject. The Book of Judges has much chronological data. In the historical Books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles we have hundreds of dates given. In the Books of the prophets many of their oracles are dated. Since God has given so much data of this type, evidently it plays a very important part in His revelation.

But the questions come, How are we to understand this chronological data? What does the Lord mean by a year? What does He mean by a hundred and thirty years? Or nine hundred and sixty-nine years? In other words, are the months and years mentioned in the Scriptures the same as the months and years of our calendar? In Genesis, chapter 5, we have the first chronological tables in connection with the genealogies of the theocratic line. We are told of the creation of Adam; then we are given his age when his first son was born. Usually we are told that he had other sons and daughters. Finally, we are informed that he died at a certain age. If a person will take his pencil and paper and put down the figures that are given here, he will see how God wrote chronology. He will see that Noah was born in the year 1056 A.H., (that is, in the year of man). The chronology is counted from the creation of Adam and is reckoned as the centuries passed. This system of chronology is different from the B.C. dates with which most of us are familiar. Thus in this study of the fifth chapter of Genesis we learn how God writes history and the importance that He attaches to chronology.

Let me say in this connection that the chronological system set forth in the Old Testament is to the history found therein just what our skeletons are to our bodies. If by some kind of electrical or chemical process our skeletons could be removed from our bodies without injuring our vital organs, we would instantly fall down in just a mass of flesh. Of course we could not survive under such conditions. We are able to stand erect and to perform our duties only because we have skeletons that enable us to stand erect. What our skeletons are to our bodies, therefore, the chronological system of the Old Testament is to it. The Old Testament is not a jumble of facts to me since I have studied chronology. It is a living organism, vibrating with life and power. (I have discussed practically every date in the Old Testament in the fourth volume of my "Messianic Series," MESSIAH: His First Coming Scheduled.)

F. The Judgment of the Wrath of God

In Genesis, chapters 6-8, we have an account of the causes of the Flood judgment and the Flood itself. This shows us how God thought concerning sin and how He punished it on a world-wide scale. Of course, circumstances alter cases. From the account of the Flood, we see that man can continue in sin and go so very far that God must intervene and deal drastically with all concerned. What the world needs today is to learn these basic truths that are found in the records of the first instances of man's disobedience to the divine will. Then, as a person studies the Word more and more, he will see how God must deal with sin on a world-wide scale yet in the future. Thus the Flood judgment lays down the fundamental principles of God's dealing with sin on an international scale.

G. The Rainbow Covenant

In Genesis 9:1-16 we have an account of God's entering into covenant relationship with all humanity. This covenant was made when Noah came forth out of the ark and sacrificed to the Lord. There are four conditions that were imposed upon the race in this covenant. The sign of this compact is the rainbow. It is called the everlasting covenant. Whenever, therefore, anyone sees the rainbow in the sky, he should recall that it is a reminder that God entered into a covenant with all humanity. It is a reminder that God is looking on the world and is going to hold it responsible for carrying out those four conditions that are stipulated in the covenant. In Isaiah, chapter 24, we have a prophecy concerning the judgment of the great Tribulation and of the terrible destruction of life and property that will result from these judgments. In Isaiah 24:5 we are told that they will come upon the world because the inhabitants thereof have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. The mention of this everlasting covenant which men will have broken, and which disobedience will bring on the Tribulation, instantly suggests the original covenant and the rainbow, the symbol of the same. Thus we can see immediately why it is that God will be just in punishing the world as He will in the Tribulation.

In the fourth chapter of the Book of Revelation we catch a vision of God's throne. Encircling it is a rainbow. What is the significance of this unusual sight? When a person remembers the law of first mention and looks back to Genesis 9:1-16, he will see why the rainbow appears above the throne of God in the fourth chapter of Revelation. God will bring His judgments upon the world during the Tribulation mainly because of the people's having violated the everlasting covenant.

H. Beginnings of Hebrew History

In Genesis 12:1-3 we have the account of God's entering into a covenant with Abraham. In this He laid down His plans for blessing the entire world. This passage is the cornerstone of all prophecy. God chose Abraham and his seed to be the channel through which He will bless the world. He has given us His revelation through the descendants of Abraham, but they have not yielded to Him and allowed Him to do for the world that which He longs to accomplish for fallen humanity. But He will yet use His disobedient ancient people in bringing a blessing to the entire world.

When God divided the peoples and separated them at Babel, He did so with reference to the children of Israel. This is seen in Deuteronomy 32:8,9. Throughout the Bible we have the history of Israel written. We see mention of other nations only as they came in touch with the Chosen People. Thus Israel is rightly called the "hub" of the nations. Thus the fundamental principles of God's dealing with Israel, are set forth in the first passage dealing with that people as a whole. Everything subsequent to that passage is given with reference to the original one.

The field in which the law of first mention operates is wide indeed. It is a very important law. If a person wishes to understand the revelation of God, he must study the Book of Genesis, which lays down the fundamentals that are developed and set forth in the rest of the Scriptures. There are, however, certain themes that are mentioned later on in the Scriptures for the first time. Thus the first mention of them gives the fundamental conception of such teachings. That the law of first mention, therefore, is of greatest importance to the Bible student can be readily seen from this brief study.

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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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