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.

Interpreting Scripture properly is a critical skill to master, particularly in an age in which the Babel of interpretations is legion. We have been treated to much sound instruction in this regard by Dr. David L. Cooper, founder of the Biblical Research Society, with "Rules of Interpretation," a series we concluded in our last Shofar. Let us continue to hone our skills with "Messages Concerning the Laws of Interpretation" 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

messages concerning
the laws of interpretation

message 1:
with an examination of Matthew 1:23
and Other Passages Relating
to the Birth of Messiah


"The context, which is the 'environment' of a sentence, must of necessity
have a profound impression upon the thought of a given sentence."

No one lives to himself, neither does he die to himself. We are part of all we meet, according to Tennyson. Everything that comes in contact with us has a certain amount of influence upon us, even though it may be infinitesimally small. Environment is certainly one of the prime factors in determining the conduct and the life of each individual. From these general observations, we can see that the context, which is the "environment" of a sentence, must of necessity have a profound impression upon the thought of a given sentence. Just as, in order to understand a person, we must know his antecedents and his environment, so must we know that which lies back behind the thought and the environment or setting in which it is placed.


A thought is first expressed by one of the prophets, for instance, in a certain section in which he is developing a specific theme. A later prophet, or a New Testament writer, lifts that quotation from its context and put it into another one and weaves it into his thoughts. This process I might compare to the gardener who plants seeds in a bed which spring forth into plants. Then some of the plants are taken out of the bed and are placed in an entirely different environment where they grow to maturity. Quotations found in the New Testament, taken from the Old, are like these plants that were sown in the original bed, but are taken up and transplanted to another environment. We want to see the original environment and likewise the final surroundings of these quotations.

Each quotation has a very definite meaning in the original context. Thus one must study the entire connection of any quotation in the original setting, in order to get its full import. When this quotation is removed and is put over into a New Testament environment, the entire context of the New Testament must be sought and the bearing of the quotation upon the thought of the New Testament writer must be studied. When this is done, sometimes it is found that that to which the quotation from the Old Testament is applied in the New fills out the entire picture as it is presented in the original quotation. In other instances it is not the complete fulfillment, but is only a partial or a limited accomplishment of the original prediction. Moreover, it may be the literal fulfillment plus a typical signification. Or it may be the literal fulfillment plus an application to a similar circumstance. Then again it may be the literal fulfillment plus a summation of a given situation. These various phases of the truth will develop as we proceed with the study. These statements being true, one can see how very important it is to study both the original context and the one into which the quotation is transplanted, in order to get the full scriptural picture of a given prediction. A failure to comply with this principle has led to endless confusion and difficulty.


Matthew 1:23

For a first example of this principle let us look in the New Testament. In Matthew 1:23 we have these words: Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, And they shall call his name Immanuel; which is being interpreted, God with us. Matthew took this quotation from the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament and not from the original Hebrew. It seems that from a careful reading of Matthew, chapter 1, the angel who appeared to Joseph is the one quoting this passage from Isaiah 7:14; for immediately following it, Matthew tells us that Joseph arose from his sleep. This statement implies that the quotation was given by the angel.

When we turn to Isaiah, chapter 7, we see that the Lord made an offer through the prophet to young King Ahaz to perform a miracle in order to strengthen his faith. The young king was to designate the place where the miracle was to occur - whether in the heavens above or in the deep, that is, in the sea beneath. Ahaz did not care for spiritual things. He chose rather to go on in his own way. Thus he rejected the offer by a pious dodge. When he thus treated sacred matters lightly, Isaiah turned from him and addressed the entire house of David. Not only to those living in his day, but to succeeding generations he spoke and promised that the Lord would give them a sign which would be that a virgin should conceive and bear a Son and should call his name Immanuel. From the trend of the thought in Isaiah, chapter 7, it is very evident that the sign offered Ahaz was a supernatural wonder. It is equally clear that the sign to the house of David should likewise be of super-human origin. In keeping with this thought the promise is made that the virgin - some definite specific virgin known to the prophet and his auditors - would conceive and would bear a Son who would be God with us. Clearly then the Son promised in this passage could be none other than one who was miraculously conceived and born of a virgin, and who would be God in human form.

But immediately following Isaiah 7:14 are verses 15-17 in which is found the promise of another child, concerning whom nothing miraculous is spoken. He was to be born in the very near future from the standpoint of the prophet. Before he would know to refuse the evil and choose the good the two lands whose kings Ahaz feared would be brought to desolation. Thus it is clear that the child mentioned in verses 15-17 was entirely different from the one foretold in verse 14. When we are willing to take the language at what it says, we cannot avoid this conclusion. There is therefore the blending of prophecies concerning two children: one the Messiah of Israel, and the other a child born by natural generation. The blending of two predictions is of frequent occurrence throughout the prophetic word. This phenomena therefore is not strange to those who are familiar with the prophecies. When we turn now to Matthew, chapter 1, we see that the Evangelist quotes the angel as explaining to Joseph Mary's condition at the time. To Joseph's amazement Mary, to whom he was at that time betrothed, had become an expectant mother. This fact shocked Joseph. He decided that he would put her away privately and not make a public example out of her. In order to forestall such action, the angel came and explained that she was the one of whom the prophet Isaiah had foretold and that her child had been miraculously conceived and would be Immanuel, which means God is with us. In the light of these facts it is clear that the prophecy spoken by Isaiah was to be taken literally, at its face value; for so did the angel understand it and expound it to Joseph.

The virgin birth was essential to our salvation. Man, in the person of Adam, the representative of the race, lost everything when he partook of the forbidden fruit. Thus in our representative we lost our birthright. By the transgression of one man sin entered the world. Christ, the second Adam, who according to this prediction enters the world by miraculous conception and virgin birth, championed the cause of man and won back for him his birthright from Satan. He, as a man, fought the battle and won the victory, conquering the Devil, who had the power of death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. It was as man that the Messiah won the victory and obtained all - and more than we lost in Adam.

From the Old Testament it was clear that the Messiah would be a man, the Son of Abraham, the Son of David. In order to be a man, He had to be born as other men are born. In regard to such a birth there were three possibilities: human parents, a new creation, and the substitution of the divine operation instead of a human father. If He had human parents, He would simply be like other men, having the fallen nature. If He were a being created, He would not be a man belonging to our race. Hence, under God's moral government, He could not champion man's cause. The only other possibility would be that of the substitution of the divine operation for a human father. By this method the taint of sin would be excluded, for it is inconceivable that, with the divine operation in the matter of the virgin birth, the taint or element of sin would be possible. Thus, according to reason, the miraculous conception by the divine operation and the virgin birth of the Messiah is the only possibility for the redemption of the human race. Such is the explanation given by the angel. The inspired Apostle's quoting the angel's word puts the divine seal of approval upon the account. There is perfect harmony between the prophecy in its original connection and in the account of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament, which was the complete fulfillment of the prediction. The prediction threw light upon the fulfillment and the fulfillment upon the original prophecy.

Matthew 2:6

The next quotation which I wish to note is the one appearing in Matthew 2:6 which is taken from Micah 5:2.

1. Now shalt thou gather thyself in troops, O daughter of troops: he hath laid siege against us; they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek. 2. But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting. 3. Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she who travaileth hath brought forth: then the residue of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel.

~ Micah 5:1-3 ~

In verse 1 the prophet addresses one whom he calls O daughter of troops and tells her to gather her forces together against us, the Jewish people. Then he foretells that the besieging forces will smite the Judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek. This language shows that Israel, at the time here foreseen, does not have a king. The siege is against the city where this judge of Israel is. This information immediately shows that the siege is against the capitol city of the Jews, Jerusalem. In contrast with Jerusalem is the little town of Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which is small to be numbered among the thousands of Judah. Yet she is very important because of the fact that the one who is to be ruler in Israel is to come forth from there unto God. This one has had a pre-existence prior to His coming forth from Bethlehem, for it is said concerning Him that His goings forth are from of old, from everlasting. This passage shows that the one of whom the prophet is speaking has had an existence prior to His going forth from Bethlehem. In fact, He has been active from historic times throughout the past prior to His coming to Bethlehem.

Following this prediction is the warning: Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she who travaileth hath brought forth: then the residue of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. This verse is a conclusion drawn from data that has just preceded - the facts which we have just noted; namely, the siege of Jerusalem. Evidently there is some connection between the siege of Jerusalem and the birth in Bethlehem of this future ruler of Israel. Because of a certain connection existing between these two events, God gives them up until the time that she who travaileth hath brought forth ... God gives up Jerusalem with her children until she who travails brings forth. Who is the one travailing and bringing forth? In the light of the context it can be Jerusalem only who brings forth the new Israel; for immediately it is explained that then the residue of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. The rest of the brethren of Judah will return to this tribe when she who travails brings forth. From other passages we know that the twelve tribes of Israel will be united and will constitute one nation, when the Jews acknowledge their national sin and accept Jesus as their Messiah. These three verses show us that God brings the daughter of troops against Jerusalem to besiege the people. He gives His Chosen People up until Jerusalem finally travails in the time of Jacob's trouble and the new Israel is born. But this siege against the capital of the Hebrews and the giving of them up until the time of the Tribulation is due to their relation to this one who is born in Bethlehem. The connection isn't given here but is to be supplied from other passages that deal with the same subject. When we examine these in the light of other passages, we see that this one who is born in Bethlehem is none other than the Messiah. The ancient synagogue recognized this fact and thus interpreted this passage as a prediction concerning His birth. When He thus comes to His people, the leaders do not understand who He is and do not recognize Him. They reject Him and clamor for His execution, which is carried out by the Romans. Finally, forty years after that fateful event, Rome, the daughter of troops, brings her forces against the Jewish nation. Jerusalem falls in A.D. 70. The Hebrews are scattered throughout the world and they remain the people of the wandering feet until the time that Jerusalem travails again with child, the new Israel. At that time the Hebrew people will see the mistake of the centuries in their rejecting the Messiah. In true contrition they will acknowledge their national sin, will plead for Him to return, which thing He will do. Then all Israel will be reunited. Thus the residue of Judah's brethren will return to Him. Messiah will mount the throne of David and will establish a reign of righteousness, peace, and justice upon the earth. According to verse 4, Messiah shall stand, and shall feed his flock in the strength of Jehovah, in the majesty of the name of Jehovah his God: and they shall abide; for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth. Such is the original context of the second quotation given in Matthew.

Now let us look at it as it appears in Matthew. When the wise men came from the East and inquired where was the child who is born "King of the Jews," Herod inquired of the scribes where the expected King was to be born. Their reply was that, according to Micah's prophecy, He was to be born in Bethlehem of Judaea. Thus they quoted Micah 5:2 and interpreted this passage literally. Herod wanted to know the place where He was to be born. The prophecy stated that it would be in Bethlehem of Judah.

This prophecy was interpreted literally. Messiah, who is to be Israel's future Ruler, was, according to plan and schedule, to be born in Bethlehem of Judah. Thus we see from Matthew's use of this passage that the prophecy was fulfilled literally. Both the original prediction and its application in the New Testament confirm one another.

Matthew 2:15

A third quotation given in the New Testament from the Old is found in Matthew 2:15: Out of Egypt did I call my son. This passage is found in Hosea 11:1. An examination of the original context shows that the prophet was speaking of Israel and her coming forth out of Egyptian bondage. Israel was in the literal Egypt and literally came out of Egyptian bondage under the leadership of Moses. About this interpretation there can be no doubt. When the wise men departed from Bethlehem, they went directly to their own home and did not return to tell Herod anything about the Christ Child. Knowing what Herod would do, the Lord warned Joseph to take the child and Mary the mother, to flee to Egypt, and to remain there until He would tell them when to come back to the land of Israel. Joseph followed the instructions implicitly. When Herod was dead, the Lord instructed him to bring the mother and the child out of Egypt and to return to Palestine. This thing they literally did. Matthew said that the Holy Family resided in Egypt and came forth, returning to the land of Israel, and thus fulfilled this prophecy. But as we have seen, this prophecy applied to Israel literally and to the Exodus under Moses. Just as Israel's coming out of Egypt was literal, so was the coming of the Holy Family literal. But since Israel is called God's first-born and so Jesus was God's First-Born, there was a typical relationship between Israel and the Messiah. Thus we see the literal meaning of the prophecy plus the typical signification. Because of Israel's being typical of the Messiah, this passage was thus properly and legitimately applied to Him.

Matthew 2:18

In Matthew 2:18 we have a quotation taken from Jeremiah 31:15: Thus saith Jehovah: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children, because they are not. An examination of this passage in the original context shows that these words were spoken concerning the mothers of Israel who wept when their sons, at the conclusion of the fall of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar went forth into Babylonian captivity. There was literal weeping by real women concerning the fate that had overtaken their sons. An examination of the original context shows that this is the significance of the words.

When Herod saw that he had been mocked by the wise men, he issued a decree that all children under two years of age should be destroyed. He issued this edict in order that he might be certain that the Christ Child was slain. When this decree was executed, naturally the mothers of Bethlehem whose children had been slain wept for their children. In the original passage there were actual mothers weeping literally for their children. In the application that is made of this passage to the mothers of Bethlehem the whole situation is literal. But did Jeremiah, in speaking these words, look forward and see these mothers in Bethlehem weeping? This is doubtful. Why then, did Matthew quote this passage and apply it to the case under discussion? The original subjects concerning whom the prophecy was uttered and those to whom it was applied were all literally in a similar position. The cases were parallel in that they were literal and were similar. Thus Matthew interprets this passage literally and makes an application to an analogous case. We see that the prophecy had literal fulfillment plus an application. This is a legitimate use of Scripture.

Matthew 2:23

In Matthew 2:23 we are told that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus and settled in Nazareth that it might be fulfilled which had been spoken through the prophets that He should be called a Nazarene. One will look in vain for such a definite, specific passage of Scripture saying that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene. A Nazarene is an inhabitant of Nazareth. In the first century Nazareth had a very bad name. When Nathaniel was told that Jesus was of Nazareth, he asked this question: Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46). The word, Nazarene, in the days of Jesus was a term of reproach. Since there is no specific passage of Scripture which says that Messiah would be called a Nazarene, and since there are many passages which say that He would be hated, despised, and looked down upon, it is very clear that the statement of the Evangelist that He should be called a Nazarene is his way of giving us the gist of those prophecies that tell about the hostile attitude that the people would take toward Messiah. The Old Testament predictions say that men will literally hate the Messiah, and that He will be a reproach and will be despised. All of these ideas are expressed by the word, Nazarene. Thus we see that this is a literal fulfillment of these predictions, but it is also a summation of the teachings of the prophets on this point.

From this short survey of quotations from the Old Testament we can see how very important it is that we examine the contexts of every quotation thus cited in order that we may determine the correct interpretation.


Links to 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 "Rules of Interpretation" series
and the "Messages Concerning the Laws 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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