The Bible is a precious gift from God. It provides much to the world and to believers in particular. How wonderful it is that with the help of God, we can properly understand it. When we sit down to read or study God’s word, we should always seek to interpret it well. Below are some guidelines for good interpretation practices.
1. Pray for the Lord’s help and bring a teachable mind and a humble heart to His word. When you come to God’s word, turn to Him and pray for understanding and discernment. Approach the Bible with humility and entire submissiveness. Be aware of any pre-held beliefs or understandings and be prepared to let the Bible inform or even change your beliefs. Also, be ready to engage your mind as well as your heart.
2. Use a good Bible translation like the NASB, ESV, or KJV. This is so important. If you really want to know what God’s words says, then you need to start with a good translation. They do the best job of bringing the original meaning to you. Translations that are incorrect or inconsistent in how they render the Hebrew and Greek words into English or paraphrase the text can obscure or change the meaning. For help choosing a good Bible please see: Bible translations: Comparison charts
3. Always consider the context. Proper interpretation requires verses to be read in context. So do not only read the verse or verses that you are interested in. Read what comes before and after. This could mean an additional few sentences, paragraphs, or even a chapter depending on where you are. The context will help shed light on the passage you are looking at and help to make sure you are not incorrectly isolating an idea. And this extra reading is good! It gives you more exposure to God’s word. That is always a blessing!
4. Avoid reading meaning into the text. Be careful to practice exegesis (digging out the original meaning of the text) and not eisegesis (reading meaning into it). It is not necessary to apply any unusual approaches when you do this work. Consider normal things like grammar and syntax. Take the simple, straight meaning without twisting or stretching what’s there. This work can be done prayerfully and carefully, relying always on God’s help. You could also check trusted commentaries to aid you. This can help confirm your interpretation of the verses and notify you if you have come up with a brand new interpretation. After two millennia of church history in which the meaning of the Scriptures has been well hammered out, a brand new interpretation would be a red flag that something is amiss.
Each commentary will have a bias, so make sure to check out the author(s). Also, you don’t have to agree with everything that’s in there, even if the author is widely regarded as trustworthy. No one is perfect, so consider them as guides not gospel truth.
Commentary on the Whole Bible Matthew Henry
Exposition of the Entire Bible John Gill
The MacArthur Bible Commentary John MacArthur
5. Ask questions to help you glean the meaning correctly and to get the most from the passage. In no particular order, here are some questions you could ask.
Who is speaking or writing and to whom? Does the passage apply to all people, Christians, non-believers, women only, etc? If you fit into the intended audience, what can be learned and applied to your life and walk with the Lord?
What is the cultural setting?
Consider the book and type of writing. The Bible has a variety of literary forms and that should weigh in your interpretation. For example, does the verse(s) in question appear in a historical narrative? Or is it a piece of poetry, prose, or a song? Does it appear in a letter? Is it prophetic or apocalyptic writing? Is it part of a parable?
Are the verses in the Old or New Testament? That could affect how they should be interpreted or applied.
What is the context of the passage? (See above)
Is the passage a primary passage, meaning does it fully speak to the concepts and ideas in it or is it more of a secondary passage that only kind of touches on them? Secondary passages are important, but should not be used alone to establish doctrine.
Are there common words or expressions that keep coming up in the passage or context? Making these connections can really help your understanding.
Since the greatest point of knowing what the Bible says is to grow in our knowledge of God, examine the verses for mention of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If they are mentioned, what is said about them? Are they taking a certain role or performing a certain work?
If the ideas in the passage are not entirely new to you, how do they line up with what you already believe? Is there any need to change your beliefs to better line up with the Scriptures? If you cannot reconcile what you believe with the Bible, the Bible wins. It is God’s word, and we are not the arbiters of truth.
6. Consider the rest of the Scriptures in your interpretation. It is often said, “Let the Bible interpret the Bible.” When you are seeking to understand a verse or verses, keep in mind what you already know about the rest of the Bible. There may be other relevant verses or concepts that could help shape a proper understanding. Make sure that your conclusions don’t contradict other portions of the Scriptures.
7. If needed, look up the Hebrew or Greek meanings of words. Proper interpretation is oftentimes enhanced by a study of the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words behind the English words in our Bibles. To help with this, there are different sources like Strong’s Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries, the NASB Concordance, and Thayer’s Greek Definitions. You cannot properly exegete a verse if you do not have the correct meaning of the words that are in it.
8. Thank God for His word and instruction, and pray that His word would take deep root in you. Remember to thank God for His word and His instruction. His word is living, active, and profitable for much (Hebrews 4:12, 2 Timothy 3:16-17); so rest assured that if, by the grace of God, you truly desire to understand the truth in a passage, His word and the power of the Holy Spirit will affect illumination. Pray that your faith increases as your understanding does and that what you learn bears fruit in your life to the glory of God.
May the word of Christ dwell richly in you! (Colossians 3:16)
Adapted from How to do a Topical Bible Study