Man is notoriously a creature of extremes, and nowhere is that fact more evident than in the attitude taken by different ones to this subject. Whereas some have affirmed the Bible is written in such simple language that it calls for no explaining, a far greater number have suffered the papists to persuade them that its contents are so far above the grasp of the natural intellect, its subjects so profound and exalted, its language so abstruse and ambiguous that the common man is quite incapable of understanding it by his own efforts, and therefore that it is the part of wisdom for him to submit his judgment to "holy mother church," who brazenly claims to be the only Divinely authorized and qualified interpreter of God's oracles. Thus does the Papacy withhold God's Word from the laity, and impose her own dogmas and superstitions upon them. For the most part the laity are quite content to have it so, for thereby they are relieved of searching the Scriptures for themselves. Nor is it much better with many Protestants, for in most cases they are too indolent to study the Bible for themselves, and believe only what they hear from the pulpits.
The principal passage appealed to by Romanists in an attempt to bolster up their pernicious contention that the Bible is a dangerous book—because of its alleged obscurity—to place in the hands of the common people is 2 Peter 3:15, 16. Therein the Holy Spirit has told us that the apostle Paul, according to the wisdom given him, spoke in his epistles of "some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction." But as Calvin long ago pointed out, "We are not forbidden to read Paul's epistles because they contain some things difficult to be understood, but that, on the contrary, they are commended to us, providing we have a calm and teachable mind." It is also to be noted that this verse says "some things" and not "many," and that they are "hard" and not "incapable of being understood"! Moreover, the obscurity is not in them, but in the depravity of our nature which resists the holy requirements of God, and the pride of our hearts which disdains seeking enlightenment from Him. The "unlearned" here refers not to illiteracy, but to being untaught of God; and the "unstable" are those with no settled convictions, who, like weathervanes, turn according to whatever wind of doctrine blows upon them.
On the other hand, there are some misguided souls who have suffered the pendulum to swing to the apposite extreme, denying that the Scriptures need any interpreting. They aver they have been written for simple souls, saying what they mean and meaning what they say. They insist that the Bible requires to be believed and not explained. But it is wrong to pit those two things against each other: both are necessary. God does not ask for blind credence from us, but an intelligent faith, and for that three things are indispensable: that His Word should be read (or heard), understood, and personally appropriated. None other than Christ Himself gave exhortation, "Whoso readeth, let him understand" (Matthew 24:15)—the mind must be exercised upon what is read. That a certain amount of understanding is imperative appears further from our Lord's parable of the Sower and the Seed: "When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart.., but he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it" (Matthew 13:19, 23). Then let us spare no pains to arrive at the meaning of what we read, for what use can we make of what is unintelligible to us?
Others take the position that the only Interpreter they need, the only One adequate for the task, is the Holy Spirit. They quote: "But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things... but the anointing which ye have received of Him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you" (1 John 2:20-27). To declare that I need none but the Holy Spirit to teach me may sound very honoring to Him, but is it true? Like all human assertions that one requires to be tested, for nothing must be taken for granted where spiritual things are concerned. We answer that it is not, otherwise Christ makes superfluous provision by giving "pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry" (Ephesians 4:11-12). We must ever bear in mind that it is a very short step from trusting God to tempting Him, from faith to presumption (Matthew 4:6-7). Neither should we forget what is God's common and usual method in supplying the wants of His creatures—mediately and not immediately, by secondary causes and human agent. That pertains as much to the spiritual realm as to the natural. It has pleased God to furnish His people with gifted instructors, and instead of haughtily ignoring them we ought (while testing their teaching—Acts 17:11) to accept thankfully whatever help they can afford us.
Far be it from us to write anything which would discourage the young believer from recognizing and realizing his dependence upon God, and his need of constantly turning to Him for wisdom from above, particularly so when engaged in reading or meditating upon His Holy Word. Yet he must bear in mind that the Most High does not tie Himself to answer our prayers in any particular manner or way. In some instances He is pleased to illumine our understandings directly and immediately, but more often than not He does so through the instrumentality of others. Thereby He not only hides pride from us individually, but places honor on His own institution, for He has appointed and qualified men to "feed the flock" (1 Peter 5:2), "guides over us" whose faith we are bidden to follow (Hebrews 13:7). It is true that, on the one hand, God has so written His Word that the wayfaring man, though a fool, should not err therein (Isaiah 35:8); yet, on the other hand, there are "mysteries" and "deep things" (1 Corinthians 2:10); and while there is "milk" suited to babes there is also "strong meat," which belongs only to those who are of full age (Hebrews 5:13-14).
Turning from the general to the particular let us evince there is a real need for interpretation. First, in order to explain seeming contradictions. Thus, "God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him... Take now thy son... and offer him there for a burnt offering" (Genesis 22:1-2). Now place by the side of that statement the testimony of James 1:13, "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man." Those verses appear to conflict openly with each other, yet the believer knows that such is not the case, though he may be at a loss to demonstrate that there is no inconsistency in them. It is therefore the meaning of those verses which has to be ascertained. Nor is that very difficult. Manifestly the word "tempt" is not used in the same sense in those sentences. The word "tempt" has both a primary and a secondary meaning. Primarily, it signifies to make trial of, to prove, to test. Secondarily, it signifies to allure, seduce, or solicit to evil. Without a shadow of doubt the term is used in Genesis 22:1, in its primary sense, for even though there had been no Divine intervention at the eleventh hour, Abraham had committed no sin in slaying Isaac, since God had bidden him do so.
By the Lord's tempting Abraham on this occasion we are to understand not that He would entice unto evil as Satan does but rather that He made trial of the patriarch's loyalty, affording him an opportunity to display his fear of Him, his faith in Him, his love to Him. When Satan tempts he places an allurement before us with the object of encompassing our downfall; but when God tempts or tests us, He has our welfare at heart. Every trial is thus a temptation, for it serves to make manifest the prevailing disposition of the heart—whether it be holy or unholy. Christ was "in all points tempted like as we are, sin (indwelling) excepted" (Hebrews 4:15). His temptation was real, yet there was no conflict within Him (as in us) between good and evil—His inherent holiness repelled Satan's impious suggestions as water does fire. We are to "count it all joy when we fall into divers temptations" or "manifold trials," since they are means of mortifying our lusts, tests of our obedience, opportunities to prove the sufficiency of God's grace. Obviously we should not be called on to rejoice over inducements to sin!
Again, "The Lord is far from the wicked" (Proverbs 15:29), yet in Acts 17:27, we are told He is "not far from every one of us"—words which were addressed to a heathen audience! These two statements seem to contradict one another, yea, unless they be interpreted they do so. It has, then, to be ascertained in what sense God is "far from" and in what sense He is "not far from" the wicked—that is what is meant by "interpretation." Distinction has to be drawn between God's powerful or providential presence and His favorable presence. In His spiritual essence or omnipresence God is ever nigh unto all of His creatures (for He "fills heaven and earth"—Jeremiah 23:24) sustaining their beings, holding their souls in life (Psalm 64:9), bestowing upon them the mercies of His providence. But since the wicked are far from God in their affections (Psalm 73:27), saying in their hearts "Depart from us: for we desire not the knowledge of Thy ways" (Job 21:14), so His gracious presence is far from them: He does not manifest Himself to them, has no communion with them, hears not their prayers ("the proud He knoweth afar off"—Psalm 138:6), succors them not in the time of their need, and will yet bid them "depart from Me, ye cursed" (Matthew 25:41). Unto the righteous God is graciously near: Psalms 34:18; 145:18.
Once more. "If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true" (John 5:31)—"though I bear record of Myself, yet My record is true" (John 8:14). Another pair of opposites! Yet there is no conflict between them when rightly interpreted. In John 5:17-31, Christ was declaring His sevenfold equality with the Father: first in service, then in will. Verse 19 means He could originate nothing that was contrary to the Father, for they were of perfect accord (see v. 30). In like manner, He could not bear witness of Himself independently of the Father, for that would be an act of insubordination. Instead, His own witness was in perfect accord therewith: the Father Himself (v. 37), and the Scriptures (v. 39), bore testimony to His absolute deity. But in John 8:13-14, Christ was making direct reply to the Pharisees, who said His witness was false. That He emphatically denied, and appealed again to the witness of the Father (v. 18). Yet again. "I and My Father are one" (John 10:30)—"My Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). In the former, Christ was speaking of Himself according to His essential being; in the latter, in reference to His mediatorial character or official position.
Second, interpretation is necessary to prevent our being misled by the mere sound of words. How many have formed wrong conceptions from the language used in different verses through their failure to understand its sense. To many it appears impious to place a different meaning upon a term than what appears to be its obvious signification; yet a sufficient warning against this should be found in the case of those who have so fanatically and stubbornly adhered to Christ's words, "this [unleavened bread] is My body," refusing to allow that it must mean "this represents My body"—as "the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are [i.e. symbolize] the seven churches" (Revelation 1:20). The error of Universalism, based upon indefinite terms being given an unlimited meaning, points further warning. Arminianism errs in the same direction. "That He by the grace of God should taste death for every man" (Hebrews 2:9) no more included Cain, Pharaoh and Judas than "every man" is to be understood absolutely in Luke 16:16; Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 4:5; and "all men" in 1 Timothy 2:4, 6, is no more to be taken as meaning all without exception than it is in Luke 3:15; John 3:26; Acts 22:15.
"Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations" (Genesis 6:9). Of Job, too, it is said that he was "perfect and upright" (1:1). How many have allowed themselves to be misled by the sound of those words. What false concepts have been formed of their import! Those who believe in what they term "the second blessing" or "entire sanctification" consider they confirm their contention that sinless perfection is attainable in this life. Yet such a mistake is quite inexcusable, for what is recorded very soon afterwards of those men shows plainly they were very far from being without moral defect: the one becoming intoxicated, the other cursing the day of his birth. The word "perfect" in those and similar passages signifies "honest, sincere," being opposed to hypocrisy. "We speak wisdom among them that are perfect" (1 Corinthians 2:6). There, and in Philippians 3:15, the word signifies "mature"—compare "of full age" in Hebrews 5:14—as distinct from infantile.
"I will make drunk her princes, and her wise men... and they shall sleep a perpetual sleep, and not wake, saith the King, whose name is the Lord of hosts" (Jeremiah 51:57). Those words are cited by gross materialists, who believe in the annihilation of the souls of the wicked. They need not detain us long, for the language is plainly figurative. God was about to execute judgment upon the pride of Babylon, and as a historical fact that mighty city was captured while its king and his courtiers were in a drunken stupor, being slain therein, so that they awoke no more on earth. That "perpetual sleep" cannot be understood literally and absolutely is evident from other passages which expressly announce the resurrection of the wicked—Daniel 12:2; John 6:29.
"He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel" (Numbers 23:21). How often those words have been regarded absolutely, without any regard to their context. They were a part of Balaam's explanation to Balak, why he could not curse Israel so that they should be exterminated by the Midianites. Such language did not mean that Israel was in a sinless state, but that up to that time they were free from any open rebellion against or apostasy from Jehovah. They had not been guilty of any heinous offense like idolatry. They had conducted themselves as to be unfit for cursing and cutting off. But later the Lord did see "perverseness" in Israel, and commissioned Babylon to execute His judgment upon them (Isaiah 10). It is unwarrantable to apply this relative statement to the Church absolutely, for God does "behold iniquity" in His children, as His chastening rod demonstrates; though He imputes it not unto penal condemnation.
Third, interpretation is needed for the inserting of an explanatory word in some passages. Thus in "Thou art of purer eyes than to [approvingly] behold evil, and canst not [condoningly] look on iniquity" (Habakkuk 1:13). Some such qualifying terms as these are required, otherwise we should make them contradict such a verse as "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good" (Proverbs 15:3). God never beholds evil with complacency, but He does to requite it. Once more. "For who hath resisted His [secret or decretive] will?" (Romans 9:19); "neither did according to His [revealed or preceptive] will" (Luke 12:47)—unless those distinctions be made Scripture would contradict itself. Again, "Blessed are they that [evangelically, i.e., with genuine desire and effort] keep His testimonies" (Psalm 119:2)—for none do so according to the strict rigor of His Law.
For our concluding example of the need for interpretation let us take a very familiar and simple verse: "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). Does that "say what it means"? Certainly, says the reader; and the writer heartily agrees. But are you sure that you understand the meaning of what it says? Has Christ undergone no change since the days of His flesh? Is He the same absolutely today as He was yesterday? Does He still experience bodily hunger, thirst, and weariness? Is He still in "the form of a servant," in a state of humiliation, "the Man of sorrows"? Interpretation is here obviously needed, for there must be a sense in which He is still "the same." He is unchanged in His essential Person, in the exercise of His mediatorial office, in His relation unto and attitude toward His Church—loving them with an everlasting love. But He has altered in His humanity, for that has been glorified; and in the position which He now occupies (Matthew 28:18; Acts 2:36). Thus the best known and most elementary verses call for careful examination and prayerful meditation in order to arrive at the meaning of their terms.