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The Blue Letter Bible

Don Stewart :: How Should Specific Difficulties Be Evaluated?

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Don Stewart
What should the reader do when they find a difficult passage in the Bible? Is there a way to approach particular problems? The answer is, Yes. There are several matters that must be kept in mind when one comes across a Bible difficulty.

1. Discover The Intent of the author

Above all, we need to attempt to find the author's intent. In assessing any written document we should assume that the author had intended to make sense of what he wrote. Therefore we should use our common sense to understand what the author is trying to say. The primary rule in interpreting any communication is to try to find what the author intended. Thus, when it comes to Scripture, our primary goal should be to attempt to understand what the author, God, is trying to communicate.

2.Give the Bible the benefit of the doubt

Whenever a document comes down to us that is reportedly ancient, and it shows no signs of tampering or forgery; and if this document demonstrates that it is correct with the specific references that it gives; the burden of proof is on those who doubt its authenticity.

Our Ignorance

Therefore, when we meet an apparent error in Scripture - a book that repeatedly has demonstrated itself to be reliable, we should presume the error is our ignorance as to what the author is saying. In other words, the Bible always gets the benefit of the doubt.

3.Check Out the Original

Sometimes the problem we face lies in the translation of the passage. When the original language is checked the discrepancy often goes away. This is why multiple translations should be considered when encountering a difficulty.

4. Realize Scripture Interprets Scripture

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Bible must be allowed to interpret itself. We must remember that the ultimate author behind each of the books of the Bible is God. When Scripture is compared with Scripture we can then discover the full implications of what God intended.

5.Interpret Obscure By Clear

One central rule of interpretation is that we interpret the obscure passage by the clear. We do not try to force the obvious meaning of one text to conform to the obscure meaning of another text. Never should a doctrine be based upon an obscure passage. A good example of this is 1 Corinthians 15:29.

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?

We may not exactly know what this passage does mean, but from the totality of Scripture we certainly know what it does not mean. People are not to be baptized in place of those who have died.

Gap Theory

Another example of making a doctrine out of something obscure would be the gap theory. This theory, which argues for a gap of time between the first two verses of Genesis, is built upon a questionable translation of the Hebrew. This alone should make the theory suspect.

Analogy Of Scripture

There is a principle called the analogy of Scripture. Simply stated, this teaches that every unclear reference should be interpreted in light of something that is clear. Therefore, we should never assume that an unclear passage contradicts what is clearly taught elsewhere in God's Word, neither should we build any doctrine on some obscure text or translation.

All The Teachings

Thus we should interpret all difficult passages in light of the clear teachings of Scripture. No doctrine should be built upon passages that are obscure. If a certain teaching is vital, it will be stated in Scripture more than once.

6. Interpret the bible As Other Books

Another point that needs to be made is that the Bible should be interpreted by the same rules we use to interpret any other book. There are no special rules we should consider when we interpret the Bible. The Bible should be approached like all other books with regard to interpretation. We should seek to identify the author's intent and take the words in their literal meaning.

7.Look for the Literal Meaning

We have established the fact that the Bible is God's communication to humanity. Obviously, if the Bible intends to reach the maximum number of people, then the message should be understood at face value. The Bible should be interpreted in a literal manner if at all possible. A good rule of thumb is this: If the literal sense, makes good sense, then seek no other sense, lest you come up with nonsense.

8. Understand different literary devices

Sometimes the difficulty we encounter is a result of an incorrect understanding of the type of language the author is employing. The Bible contains different literary styles. In the pages of Scripture we find such styles as narrative, law, and poetry. Sometimes the difficulty lies in the incorrect identification of the type of literary form the author is employing.

Allows For Figures Of Speech

Literal interpretation allows for figures of speech. The Bible, at times, uses figures of speech to communicate its truth. If the Bible is read as other literature allowing the author to say what he wishes in the different literary forms, then there will be no major problem understanding that which is to be taken literally and that which is meant to be non-literal.

Types Of Figurative Language

The Bible does contain figurative language. Sometimes the Bible difficulty vanishes when we understand the passage is not meant to be understood literally. Figurative language includes the following:


Metaphor is comparison made by direct statement. Jesus said, I am the vine (John 15). Jesus said elsewhere, Take eat this is My body. These statements are not meant to be literal but symbolic. Jesus was not an actual vine and He did not expect people to eat His body!

2. Simile

Simile is comparison by use of words like or as. Examples of this literary figure are as follows:

The glory of the Lord was as a devouring fire (Exodus 24:17).

God's glory can be compared to a devouring fire but it is not the same as a devouring fire.

3. Hyperbole

Hyperbole is exaggeration for purpose of emphasis. John wrote:

And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written (John 21:25).

This is obvious exaggeration to make a point - Jesus did many more things than the gospels record.


This refers to attributing human characteristics to God. In Scripture, God is said to have eyes, a nose, an arm, and a hand. These characteristics are only figures of speech, for God does not have a body (John 4:24). They are given to help us better understand God's nature and actions.

How To Identify Figurative Language

Certain types of writing exclude the possibility of figurative language (laws and historically writings) while some writings lend themselves to figurative language (such as poetry).

Literal If Possible

In any interpretation, the words should be interpreted literally if possible. If not, then you move to figurative language. Usually there are clues in the context. Sometimes there will even be a definition. For example, in the Book of Revelation the dragon is defined in context as the Devil (12:9).

9.Assume the Unity Of the Bible

The Bible should be approached as a unity when the task of interpretation begins. It is one book, with one author behind it - God. The Bible, as it now stands, has a unique makeup. This can be seen as follows:

Fifteen Hundred Years In The Making

From the composition of the first biblical book until the last, a period of fifteen hundred years elapsed. The Old Testament was written between 1400 and 400 B.C. The first book composed was either the Book of Genesis or the Book of Job. The books of the New Testament were written approximately A.D. 40 to A.D. 80.

Many Authors, Many Occupations

Over forty different human authors wrote the books of the Bible. These writers came from a variety of backgrounds and occupations. They included shepherds (Hosea and Amos) fishermen (Peter and John), kings (David and Solomon), a tax collector (Matthew), a prime minister (Daniel), a doctor (Luke), and a military general (Joshua).

Three Continents

The books of the Bible were composed upon three different continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe. For example, the writings of Ezekiel were composed in Babylon (Asia), Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible in the Sinai desert (Africa), and the Apostle Paul wrote the letter to Philippi while in Rome (Europe).

Different Circumstances

There was a variety of circumstances in which the Biblical books were composed. Moses, for example, wrote while leading the children of Israel through the wilderness. Jeremiah wrote while in a dungeon in Israel. Ezekiel composed his book while a captive in Babylon. The Apostle Paul wrote several of his works while in a Roman prison. John the evangelist wrote the Book of Revelation while banished to the island of Patmos. Obviously there was not a particular place or instance in which all of the biblical books were composed.

Can Reveal Himself Anywhere

Though many other religions had a certain place where the divine word was revealed, this is not the case with the Bible. This is to point out that God could reveal Himself in many different places over an extended period of time.

Different Languages Employed

The Bible was written in three different languages. The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew with some parts being composed in Aramaic; the New Testament was originally written in Greek.

Different Subjects Covered

The Bible also covers a variety of subjects, including the existence and nature of God, the creation of the universe, the meaning of man, the purpose of our existence, and the final destiny of man and the planet earth.

One Complete Story

Hence, the Bible was written over a period of fifteen hundred years, by forty different human authors from various backgrounds who wrote in different languages, upon different continents, in different circumstances, and upon different subjects. Yet the Bible is a unity, one unfolding account from beginning to end in complete harmony and continuity. The Old Testament is incomplete without the New Testament and yet the New Testament does not make sense without the Old. Together the two testaments give a harmonious account of the dealings of God with humanity. This is one of the remarkable features of the Bible - its magnificent continuity. This should always be kept in mind when approaching Bible difficulties.

10.Always Check Out The Context

The Bible should always be interpreted contextually. This means the context should be studied in order to see how each verse relates to that which precedes and that which follows. Close attention should be paid to the theme and scope of the biblical book under consideration. Context should always be a determining factor when interpreting any difficult passage.

Out Of Context Mistakes

For example, it could be argued that the Bible teaches that God does not exist. Psalm 14:1 says, there is no God. By itself, this statement seems to teach atheism. However the statement is prefaced by this qualification: The fool says in his heart, There is no God. Each statement of the Bible needs to be read in its context.

11.Realize That Not Every Statement Is True

When we read the Bible, should we regard every statement as true? Can we confidently read any portion of Scripture and act upon any statement? The answer is no. A distinction needs to be made between the accuracy of the statements in the Bible and their truthfulness.

Satan Always Lies

Inspiration guarantees the accuracy of every statement, but not the truth of it. For example, every time Satan spoke, he lied. Jesus said of him:

He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it (John 8:44).

In the Garden of Eden the serpent promised Eve that she and her husband would be like God if they ate of the forbidden fruit.

And the serpent said to the woman, You will not surely die. For God knows in that day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:4,5).

Accurately Recorded But Not True

The statement of the serpent is recorded accurately, but the statement is not true. Other examples can be found in Scripture where people made statements that are against the clear teaching of God and His Word.

12. Bible Written in non-technical language

It is also important to understand the manner in which the truth is communicated in Scripture. The Bible is written in non-technical language for the masses. Whenever any event occurs, there are two basic ways of explaining it. One way is to give a technical explanation. However, the more technical the language the more limited your audience will be.

Viewpoint Of Observer

A second possible way of explaining things is to relate how the event appears to the observer. It is this non-technical way in which the Bible describes events. For example, the events of creation recorded in the early chapters of Genesis are not described in terms of modern scientific classification, but are described from the vantage point of an observer here on earth.

Everyday Language

The Bible does not use the technical language of science, but rather the non-technical language of the marketplace. The biblical writers dealing with concepts of their times used the language of their times. The scriptural language is the language of common everyday use. The words of the Bible are neither scientific nor unscientific in nature, but are rather timeless, and non-scientific. The language of Scripture is the language of appearance. Biblical writers describe things as they appear to the observer.

Children Can Understand

For example, Jesus taught in such a way that even a child could understand His teaching. We are told that the masses understood the things that He said and gladly accepted them.

Not Technical Answers

Furthermore, the Bible does not attempt to give technical answers to technical questions. Since the Bible speaks in everyday language to all people of all times, it is not correct to look for answers explained in technical scientific language. This type of language soon becomes out of date and would be irrelevant for future generations.

13. Our Interpretation is not infallible

The Bible is the inerrant Word of God - not our interpretation of it. Unfortunately, there have been mistaken interpretations of the Bible by certain church authorities. This has caused some to think the Scripture is in error. A classic example of this is the mistaken view that the earth is the center of the universe. Because the Bible speaks of things from an earth-centered viewpoint, some have thought Scripture was affirming that the earth, not the sun, was the center of the universe. This earth-centered idea became an article of faith for many in the church. They attempted to silence those who taught otherwise. Sadly, this was all based upon a wrong interpretation of Scripture. Therefore we should not make the mistake of believing that science and the Bible are at odds because of a wrong interpretation of the facts of Scripture. The infallibility is in the Scripture itself, not in our interpretation. When Christians read their own fallible interpretation into Scripture this does not mean the Bible is in error.


The following factors should be considered when one encounters a difficult passage in God's Word.

1.Discover the intent of the author.

2.Give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.

3.Check out the original.

4.Realize Scripture interprets Scripture

5.Interpret the obscure by clear.

6.Interpret the Bible as other books.

7.Look for the literal meaning.

8.Understand different literary devices.

9.Assume the unity of the Bible.

10.Always check out the context.

11.Realize not every statement in the Bible is true.

12.Remember that Bible was written in non-technical language.

13.Understand that our interpretation is not infallible.

These points should be kept in mind when encountering a difficult passage in the Bible. We should always remember to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt in matters that have no independent confirmation from secular sources. If we interpret the Bible as other books many of the problems we face will soon evaporate.

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