Hermeneutics is the science of Biblical interpretation. The application of this science is called exegesis. Essentially it involves the process whereby the reader or interpreter of any given text seeks to step into the shoes of the original writer, thereby reconstructing and understanding the original intention of the author.
We are fortunate today to have many linguistic and interpretative tools that can help us to accomplish this. In hermeneutics the student takes time to consider such things as:
- The language in which the original text was written.
Do we have a trustworthy translation of the text from which we are seeking to understand the original? Tools such as Strong’s concordance and other Hebrew/Greek lexicons can help with this also.
- The style of writing
Is the written work historical, proverbial, parabolic, poetic, prophetic? The Style of writing will influence the way we interpret the text. For example, a simple historical account of an event will be viewed and understood differently to a parable, which is an imaginary or symbolic description pointing to a deeper truth. To apply the rules for interpreting a parable to a historical event would be a misapplication of interpretive principles.
- The Cultural setting
Many of the events and pronouncements in the Scriptures can only be fully understood in their cultural (often Jewish) setting. Again, several helps exist to aid the student in this such as the works of Alfred Edersheim, and other Biblical Handbooks which outline the customs and cultures in which certain texts were written.
- The Geographic setting
Sometimes understanding the geography of a portion of Scripture can aid our comprehension of events. Various Bible atlases and other helps can furnish us with this information. An example would be knowing the situation of the various Old Testament prophets. Some prophesied in the Kingdom period of Jewish history, others in exile after Israel had been conquered by their enemies.
- The Time of writing
Again, the ‘when’ can have important bearing upon our interpretation of certain Scriptures.
- To whom was the original text written
Who were the intended audience of the text originally, and why? Was the text written to an individual or a group? Etc.
In our studies Bible handbooks, dictionaries, atlases and commentaries provide an armoury of helpful tools that can clothe the bare bones of a text with a more thorough contextual understanding. It is important however to always remember that God the Holy Spirit can quicken a Scripture to our understanding and apply it personally to our lives, placing upon it a significance for us personally that is not inherent in the text, and we should always have our spiritual ear tuned to the Teacher as we dig for understanding.
Examples of symbolic language would also include many of the parables of Jesus, and many of the terms He used to describe Himself (A Door, a Shepherd, a Light, Bread, Living water etc).
Types, Shadows and Symbols
In our studies reference will be made to types, shadows and symbols. God has chosen in His Word to often speak symbolically, whereby certain events, numbers, colours etc carry a deeper meaning.
Kevin Conner in his book ‘Interpreting the Symbols & The Types’ points out:
“The Christian culture, like any other culture, has a language all of its own. It is the language of Divine origin – the language of the sign and symbol, in the use of which the Bible abounds…God has woven throughout His Books numerous symbols and types, each revealing characteristics and shades of meaning that would be lost to the Bible student were such not there. One cannot understand much of the language of the Bible without understanding of the symbol and the language of the type.”
We will briefly consider these now, but the student is encouraged to purchase the above book for a more detailed insight into this amazing area of Biblical study.
Hebrews chapter one says that God speaks in many ways:
“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets,”Heb 1:1 NKJV
Among other things these ways include symbolic objects, creatures, actions, numbers, names and colours. Examples include God being our Rock (Ps 18:2) or Jesus being a ‘Lamb’ (John 1:29,36). God is not a hard lump of mineral, nor is Jesus Christ a white fluffy animal. Such language is the language of the symbol.
Again, consider the symbolic action outlined in Joshua 1:3, “Every place that the sole of your feet shall tread upon, that have I given you”, or Moses lifting his rod while Joshua fought with Amalek (Exodus 17). These are symbolic actions.
Throughout Scripture we also find a consistency of interpretation regarding numbers and colours, each with a meaning beyond its immediate application. Names and places also carry significance, which symbolically point to enduring truths deeper than a surface interpretation. Egypt for example carries a symbolic significance of the bondage of sin and the world, Babylon speaks of human rebellion and pride, Zion speaks of God’s spiritual Kingdom as opposed to the Kingdoms of this world etc.
One must be careful not to apply symbolic significance to everything, or as some have done, apply a spiritualised interpretation to events and texts that were never intended to be such. Allegorising in this way can strip the Scriptures of their primary meaning. If a Scripture can be clearly understood, and its meaning is not veiled, there is no need to seek a deeper meaning. It says what it says. It is only when a deeper significance is clearly suggested that further inquisition is required.
An example of this is the Tabernacle of Moses with its various colours and materials and objects. Each carry a spiritual meaning which, in the light of other Scriptures, all point to the redemptive work of Christ, the One who came and tabernacled among us (John 1:14).
A Type or Shadow is slightly different. Whereas a symbol is a representation, one thing standing for another, and is interpreted consistently throughout the Scriptures, a Type is more defined.
Conner defines a Type in the following way:
“A Type is a figure or representation of something to come; an anticipative figure, a prophetic symbol.” Interpreting the Symbols and Types, Kevin J Conner
The Scriptures refer to these Types as:
“Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.” (Rom 5:14 KJV)
“Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as he had appointed, speaking unto Moses, that he should make it according to the fashion that he had seen.” (Acts 7:44 KJV)
“Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.” (1Cor 10:6 KJV)
“Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” (1Cor 10:11 KJV)
- Shadows and Patterns
“Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.” (Heb 8:5 KJV)
Many times God instructed His servants to do typically what He would fulfil actually. It must be remembered however that the typical nature of an event was often not known by those involved.
For example, When Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac, he was unaware that he was pointing to another Father who would sacrifice His Beloved Son many years later.
Again, the typical significance of the Passover sacrifice of a perfect lamb was hidden until the Perfect Sacrifice of the Lamb of God was fulfilled in Christ. The fulfilment (the antitype or substance) is what gives credence to a type or shadow.
Unlike a symbol, which merely represents something other than itself, a Type has a fulfilment; a conclusion in time where the destination to which the signpost was pointing is reached and concluded. The antitype then provides the framework through which we understand the original type.