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" and "Messages Concerning the Laws of Interpretation." Let us continue to hone our skills with "An Analysis of Figures of Speech" 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


message 2: THE PARABLE


"Every well-chosen and presented illustration in the sermon lets a
flood of intellectual light into the hearts and minds of the hearers."

AT THIS time let us study parables as they appear in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament a crisp, terse saying was called a parable. The Proverbs of Solomon are called parables. An examination of this portion of the Word of God shows that couplets constitute the basis for this type of revelation. In the New Testament the term rendered parable comes from two words which mean beside and to throw down or place. A parable, according to the etymology of this word, is therefore the laying down of some known or acknowledged fact, principle, or truth beside that which is unknown. The object in doing this was to institute a comparison in order that one might deduct the unknown from the known.

Generally speaking, the parables are of such a nature that only one point was in view. They are like figures of speech. For instance, should I use a metaphor in stating, "He was a lion in the fight," I would be making a comparison between some person of whom I was speaking and a lion. There would be only one point, however, that would be common to the person and the lion. The lion is recognized as the king of beasts and is thought of as being able to conquer the rest, or rule over them. Thus by this metaphor I would mean that the one of whom I spoke had been a victor on account of his strength and power over his opponents. Someone has said that a parable is simply an extended metaphor. This is true and must be acknowledged as such. But in recognizing the kinship between a metaphor and a parable, let us not go to the extreme and think of a parable as an allegory. This latter type of language is the use of certain story material - either fact or fiction - that is presented in order to carry along a spiritual lesson. The facts are stated, or the story is told. But it is not the purpose of the speaker or writer to bring into sharp focus the things that he is saying. On the contrary, it is his desire to lead his hearers or readers to see some great fundamental principle which runs along parallel with his story, and which is obvious. If I should speak in geometrical terms, I would say that a parable is like two circles that are tangent. It is for us to find that one idea and not try to make the illustration go "on all fours." This is the general rule for a parable; there are, however, in certain contexts parables that are intended to deal with more than one point. But each one must be studied in the light of the facts as they are presented in the text.

An Examination Of Certain Parables

Our Lord Jesus Christ concluded His Sermon on the Mount (Matt., chaps. 5,6, and 7) by giving us a parable of two builders who erected houses, but upon different foundations. In this parable the Lord likened the one who hears His words and obeys them to the person who is wise and discreet, and who, when he builds a house, digs down deep to the rock, lays the foundation upon it, and upon this erects his building. When the rains descend, the winds blow, and the floods come, they beat upon this house; but it stands, because of the fact that it has a firm foundation upon which it is well-located and built. On the other hand, the one who hears His message of love, but rejects it, refusing to accept it and to conform his life thereto, is like the foolish man who built a house upon the sand. When the rains began to fall, the wind to blow, and the floods to beat upon that house, it falls, because it has no foundation. Thus in this pictorial way, our Lord compared those who hear, and who heed His teaching and those who hear, but who refuse to be obedient to His instructions, to the two different builders. They show their wisdom or their lack of understanding by the kind of foundation upon which they build, the firm foundation or the one that is only shifting sand. The person who hears and heeds the teaching of the Lord is the one who builds his house for eternity; but the one who builds upon the sand suffers eternal loss.

We can see the one main point, therefore, that is illustrated by the parable. For us to try to find some hidden, spiritual, or mysterious meaning and read that into the text would be to do violence to the Word of God.

Let us look at another parable. In Matthew 13:31,32 we have the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus stated it thus:

31. The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: 32. which indeed is less than all seeds; but when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the heaven come and lodge in the branches thereof.

That which Jesus called the kingdom of heaven, He compared to a certain grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field, and which indeed developed into an abnormal plant, a tree. In this thirteenth chapter of Matthew the Lord was presenting the teaching regarding the kingdom of heaven by the use of these various parables, each of which presents some one or more phases of this great kingdom of heaven. In this parable He said that the kingdom is like a grain of mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds, which a man planted in his field, and which developed into this abnormal growth, becoming a tree in which the birds of the heavens came and found lodgment. It is clear that the Lord was not talking about just any mustard seed, but a specific one, which a certain man planted and which developed abnormally. This growth, then, of the plant from such a small beginning into this great tree sets forth some one characteristic of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus spoke about this institution which He called the kingdom of heaven and compared it to the reign of God upon the earth. Kings obtain the right to rule over certain territory, that is, over the subjects, the people who live within the limits of the kingdom. John the Baptist announced that the kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God, had come to hand. Jesus sounded the same note. The Twelve, when they went forth on the limited, or restricted mission in Galilee, proclaimed the same message. During the last six months of our Lord's ministry the Seventy in Judea proclaimed the same message. Upon the authority of all these witnesses we cannot believe otherwise than that which is known as the kingdom of heaven, or the reign of heaven, had come near. When we read further in the second chapter of Acts, we see that this kingdom was established when the Holy Spirit came and inspired the Apostles to speak the message of truth and to lay the foundations upon which the church of God is built. Before Pentecost, we read of the kingdom as being in the future (Matt.16:18); after that memorable day, we read of it as being in existence (Acts 8:12; 20:25; 28:31). These facts point positively in the direction that the kingdom which was announced by John, the Saviour, the Twelve, and the Seventy was established on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ. It exists through this age. During the Tribulation the Lord will purge out all the tares, the wicked ones, from it and will take the kingdom over. (Ed note: If the reader is interested in a study of the Parables of the Kingdom, we suggest that he read http://www.biblicalresearch.info/page318.html). Then will be fulfilled the prophecy that the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15). But in the parable of the mustard seed the phenomenal development of the kingdom into a super growth is the one feature about the kingdom which the Lord foretold. Personally, I am convinced that this was fulfilled by the so-called conversion of Constantine the Great, who forcibly imposed Christianity upon the Roman Empire. There was a growth and an expansion of the kingdom of God into one great politico-religious octopus. The seeds were sown for the development of a corrupt ecclesiasticism, which has borne fruit throughout the Dark Ages and even to the present time.

In Matthew 13:33 Jesus spoke a parable, comparing the kingdom of heaven unto leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened. Here again we have one outstanding point which is common to the kingdom of heaven, and which is common to the fact related in the parable. The comparison brings out another feature of the kingdom of heaven. According to the statement of the Lord, a certain woman took leaven and inserted it into three measures of meal. This leaven grew and developed until it permeated all the meal. Why the Lord said three measures, no one can tell. Of course conjectures and surmises may be in order; but in the absence of positive proof no one can be dogmatic. The three measures of meal may have been put into one vessel. Then the woman inserted leaven into the meal, and it continued to work and foment until it affected the entire lot of meal. It is clear that this is a parable, and that leaven here is symbolic of something - of some power or force that permeates the entire portion of the meal. By an examination of all the instances in the New Testament where the word, leaven, is used symbolically, it is seen to signify something evil. The presumption therefore is that it has the same significance here, unless there is something in the context contrary to this thought, or unless there is evidence in some other passage that contradicts such an idea. One will look in vain for any such negative evidence. In the preceding parable at which we have just looked, we see that the kingdom of heaven would take on an abnormal growth - something contrary to nature. Anything that is beyond the normal may excite our curiosity. The fact that the leaven permeates all the meal indicates something that at least is in harmony with that in the preceding verses, which is abnormal.

This thought is in perfect agreement with the interpretation that leaven symbolizes something evil in other places and doubtless also in this place. Looking at the facts as just presented, we have a right to believe that leaven here is a symbol of something evil.

The woman is the one who inserts the leaven into the meal. The leaven being symbolic, we have a right to believe that the woman likewise is a symbol. It is she who introduces, this leaven into the meal. In other places where we see a woman used symbolically, she always represents some kind of ecclesiasticism. A pure, virtuous woman signifies the true church of God; whereas a woman who is a harlot represents a false religious system. These facts lead us to believe that the woman in this instance represents the false ecclesiasticism which developed in the Middle Ages, and which injected some leavening, evil influence into the kingdom of heaven that corrupted it. We shall not be far wrong if we conclude that the leaven which she introduced into the meal was nothing but false, corrupt teachings, doctrines and practices; since the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees were called by the Saviour the leaven of the Pharisees.

Without doubt the explanation given of the parable of the grain of mustard seed and the leaven deposited by the woman in the three measures of meal is beyond controversy. We have seen that each parable had one central thought to present. There was therefore one point of contact between the parable and the truth to be taught. But, when we look at the parable of the sower, we see that there are a number of points which the Saviour brought, together in this one parable. One should read Matthew 13:1-23. In substance the parable is this; The sower went forth to sow seed. As he did this, some of the seed fell upon the side of the road. The birds immediately came and devoured the seed. Other seed fell upon the rocky soil where there was little earth. Forthwith this seed sprang up into plants; but when the sun became hot and scorching, it withered and died because it did not have depth of soil in which it was growing. Moreover, there were other seeds that fell among thorns. These sprang up and developed into plants, but the thorns choked out these plants so that they did not bring forth any fruit to perfection. There was still other seed which fell upon good soil, and which brought forth fruit - some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundred fold. Jesus explained this parable, saying that the seed which fell upon the wayside soil represent the Word of God as it is preached, and as it falls upon the hearts of people who are indifferent, and who are not interested. They therefore do not receive the Word - just like the seed that falls upon the hard, roadside soil. The devil immediately comes and snatches this Word away from the heart lest haply the one thus having heard should believe and be saved. The seed falling upon rocky soil represents those who hear the gospel message and who embrace it most enthusiastically. But they have little stability of purpose of heart. When therefore conditions become somewhat trying, and not so favorable as at first, they fall away, which fact shows that there is no real spiritual life in this group of people. The seed falling among thorns represents those who hear the Word, who endure for a while, but who become offended at the delay of the materializing of the promise of God and become engrossed with the cares of life and its pleasures. Thus the Word and all evidence of spiritual life is choked out so that they do not bring forth any fruit whatsoever. All three of the classes thus enumerated are those who hear, but in whom the Word does not find deep and abiding lodgment, and who do not bring forth any fruit for the kingdom of God.

On the other hand, those seeds which fall in good ground represent those who have faith, who surrender their lives to God, and who accept Christ. The new life is imparted. They are strengthened by the Spirit of God and bring forth different amounts of fruit - some thirty fold, some sixty fold, while others produce one hundred fold.

It is clear from the way the Lord spoke of the four different types of soil upon which the seed falls and His explanation of the seed falling upon these different kinds of soil show beyond a peradventure that these details stood out clearly in the Saviour's mind, and that He wanted us to see them and to understand that there are the four points of contact between the parable and the kingdom of God, to which He wished to direct our attention.

Other parables might be given, but these are sufficient to stimulate in us a desire to interpret the parables and to be cautious, observing the basic laws involved in parables. A failure to recognize these general principles has proved to be a fruitful source for untold guessing, speculation, and wild theorizing.

The Purpose Of A Parable

Though some of the Old Testament prophets occasionally did use a parable, our Lord is the one who used them so very much. Evidently there was a reason for His adopting this method of instruction. Why did Jesus employ the parabolic method in instructing people? On many occasions He spoke in the simplest language, putting His message in such a way that the humblest and most under-privileged people, educationally speaking, could understand what He had to say. A survey of the Gospel records shows that that was the principle He followed as a general rule. On many occasions He spoke in parables. Why, do you suppose, did He change His method on certain occasions? Evidently there was a reason.

We have been told that an old Chinese proverb declares that one picture is worth ten thousand words. This possibility is no exaggeration. In many instances a picture can convey a clearer idea to a person than possibly twice, or several times that number of words. We think in terms of our experiences and the things with which we are acquainted. The one who can clothe his ideas in language that is familiar to his hearers will be better able to teach them. Parables are illustrations. Someone has said that illustrations are to a sermon what windows are to a house - they admit light to it. Every well-chosen and presented illustration in the sermon lets a flood of intellectual light into the hearts and minds of the hearers. We have every reason to believe that Jesus adopted the parabolic method of instruction in order that those people who wished truth, and who were under-privileged from an educational standpoint, might see the truth, accept it, and be saved. A study of all the parables that are recorded in the Gospels will lead one to that conclusion. To the one, therefore, who is honest, sincere, and unbiased in his attitude toward the truth, the parables chosen by our Lord become most illuminating and instructive.

But all people do not want truth. All too many become confirmed in their own ways of thinking and find it most difficult to lay aside their prejudices and preconceptions in order that they might receive the truth. For all such people who were in the audiences of our Lord on special occasions, Jesus used the parabolic method. This fact is seen in the following quotation:

And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? 11. And he answered and said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. 12. For whoever hath to him shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath. 13. Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand, 14. And unto them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: 15. For this people's heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, and I should heal them. 16. But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. 17. For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which ye see, and saw them not; and to hear the things which ye hear, and heard them not.

~ Matthew 18:10-17 ~

From this quotation it is abundantly evident that Jesus did speak in parables in order that those who did not want the truth, who had a bias against it, and who would not accept it, might not see it. Why did He not want them to have the truth? Another statement which He made might throw light upon this question. The Lord Jesus said to His disciples, 'Give not that which is holy to the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine. There are people whose attitude, from the spiritual standpoint, immediately puts them in the class of dogs and hogs. We may conclude that whenever Jesus saw people of that nature in His audience, He adopted the parabolic form so that they could not take the gems - sparkling, brilliant rubies and diamonds of truth - and tread them down under their feet. Hence, on the occasion when Jesus spoke the parables recorded in Matthew, chapter 13, we are logical in concluding that there were people in the audience who would not receive His message, but who were there to carp and to criticize. Having such an unholy bias, they were unable to take a hold of these marvelous truths. All they could do was to distort them and use them against the Lord Jesus.

In view of all the facts discussed above, and especially of those connected with the parable of the sower, we have every reason to believe that one's attitude toward truth and toward the Lord Jesus Christ will put him into one of the four classes which are represented by the four different types of soil mentioned in the parable of the sower. Does this statement then, one may ask, assume that there may be a person who naturally falls into the class represented by the seed falling on the wayside soil, but who, by his attitude toward the truth, is taken from that class and is placed in the fourth group that brings forth an abundant harvest? Yes, it means that. Are we therefore to assume that all have the same capacity and are on an equal footing by birth and by environment? No; we are not to arrive at such an erroneous conclusion. This is contrary to facts. But we learn that where sin abounds, grace does much more abound (Rom. 5:20). Anyone who will accept truth and receive the Saviour, coming to Him, shall in no wise be cast out.


Reprinted by permission of the Biblical Research Society, where other outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper may be found. Links to the "Rules of Interpretation,"
"Messages Concerning the Laws of Interpretation" and "An Analysis
of Figures of Speech" 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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