How to Interpret the Bible, Part 4: Pay Attention to Whom Is Being Addressed

Be sure who is being addressed, or the message will go to the wrong person
Photo credit: withassociates via photopin cc

This is part 4 of the series “How to Interpret the Bible“, so if you have not yet read the introduction, you should do so.  Likewise, we have already covered “Ask God for Help” and “Standard Definitions Don’t Depend on What the Meaning of the Word ‘Is’ Is“.  Admittedly, this part and the one that follows could have been lumped in with “Context, context and context“, but these are special cases that seem to get abused far more often.  However, even the context will normally tell you who is being addressed at what time.

Normally, but not Always

First, though, there are some interesting exceptions.  The pronouns sometimes allow for more than one meaning.

14 And Samson went down to Timnath, and saw a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines.

2 And he came up, and told his father and his mother, and said, I have seen a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines: now therefore get her for me to wife.

3 Then his father and his mother said unto him, Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines? And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well.

4 But his father and his mother knew not that it was of the Lord, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines: for at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.

~ Jdg 14:1-4

The question is “Who is ‘he’ in v 4?”  The proximity to “the Lord” suggests it was God Who was seeking the occasion against the Philistines, and that would be the most reasonable assumption for that reason.  However, the verse starts with “his father and his mother”, so there is a slight chance that it was Samson seeking the occasion against the Philistines.  Maybe he was one of those running around with a chip on their shoulder?

Of course, it is also very likely that both were, and personally I think that, consciously or unconsciously, Samson really did have it in for the Philistines right from the beginning.  It is also evident that God raised him up to be a stumblingblock to the Philistines, so in reality it is likely irrelevant which “he” was being referred to, as they both had a cause against the Philistines.

It’s been pointed out to me that pronoun usage can and often does lead to misunderstandings.  So, a side lesson to this is to be careful how you use pronouns.

Most passages are clearer than that, but we must acknowledge some do exist, and those are the ones where we must tread lightly and not be overly dogmatic.

Most Are Clear

However, most passages are not in dispute as to whom is being addressed.  You have heard it said that the Bible is filled with promises, right?  How many of them can you or I claim for ourselves?  Not very many, it turns out, for we are not the ones being addressed.

Likewise, Noah was told to build an ark.  Moses was told to go to Egypt and lead the Israelites out.  Joseph was told to appear before Pharaoh.  Daniel was given the ability to interpret dreams.  Yet, how many of these can we point to and say, “This applies to me?”

Isn’t it a form of insanity where people go around claiming they are some sort of “Elisha” figure?  Compare themselves to Habukkuk?  While I believe that there is a principle of the Ezekiel watchman, even that gets banged around by trying to fit a square into a round hole, IMO.  When we get to symbols, we will see that when the Bible tells us that something is a symbol of a thing, then that something is that thing, but otherwise we should not assume it is.

A Bad Joke That Illustrates This

We all have heard this joke, but it is a good example of violating this principle:

A man was despondent and need to know what to do.  So, he decided to open up his Bible, put his finger on a passage and take it to heart.

The first passage was Matthew 27:5, “And he [Judas] … went and hanged himself.”  The man thought that wasn’t very encouraging, so he tried again.

The second passage he landed on was Luke 10:37, “… Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.”  Now, the man was perplexed.  “Lord,” he asked, “are you sure?”

He flipped through the Bible and landed on John 13:27, “…That thou doest, do quickly.”

Of course, there are quite a few things wrong here.  Flipping through and picking out verses is certainly breaking the rule of taking things out of context.

The last two completely ignore the fact that Jesus was talking to someone else, and the man is taking it personally.  I have lost count of how many inspirational quotes from the Bible are like that.  Usually, it is done quite casually, but I’ve seen entire write-ups and heard entire speeches based upon something the Bible says … to someone else!

Don’t get me wrong, here.  There are examples, both good and bad, within the Bible that should show us right and proper conduct.  There are examples that are general enough that we can take the lessons home with us.  However, it seems that the temptation of some is to take it beyond generalities and apply specifics to our individual lives without stopping to think that we have individual unique lives.

However, any rule can be twisted and abused.  That is why it is important to take these guidelines in priority order.  There actually is a specific case that is often twisted to make it sound like it means something other than what it clearly means.  I’ve heard this argument more than once, and it involves a specific and well-known chapter within the COG community.  That chapter is Leviticus 23.

Those “Jewish” Holidays

Perhaps you have heard this counterargument as well.  Let’s run through it, and think about how you should respond to such an idea, internally if not externally.  So, let’s go:

23 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, Concerning the feasts of the Lord, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my feasts.

Lev 23:1-2

Hopefully, we are all familiar with the idea that these are God’s feast days.  Here, God clearly states not that they are Israel’s feasts, Jewish feasts or Moses’ feasts, but His feasts.  If you are not familiar with this idea, then the rest of this section might not make a lot of sense to you.  You can find out more by clicking on the category for holidays or holy days.

So, it should be clear that God states they are His feasts, but some disagree.  Notice that it starts with “Speak unto the children of Israel….”  Then notice how the chapter ends:

44 And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the feasts of the Lord.

So, the argument goes, God was giving commandments to Israel and not the rest of humanity.  We know this because the Bible tells us He is speaking to them.

So, what is your response?  Do you know the answer?

Priority in Interpretation

Look over the flow of the guidelines again.  The very first rule is to determine what is being said using standard definitions of words.  So, yes, God was speaking to Israel.  God was speaking to His model nation.  They were a nation of flesh and blood with great promises given to them, and if they obeyed they would have been a beacon of light to all nations.

Now, I would think that would be sufficient reason for someone wishing to please God to do the same, frankly, but for some it is not.  What is clear, however, is not only that He spoke to them but what He spoke to them!  What He spoke to them was that these were His feasts!  So, in reality, the whom being addressed does not matter because it does not change the what of what was being said.

Imagine it this way: If a husband and wife are arguing, and the husband declares, “That Ford is my car,” then is it only his car when speaking to his wife?  What if the teenage son decided to take it out for a spin one night without permission?  Would an acceptable defense be, “Well, Dad, you weren’t addressing me when you said that”?

That would be silly, and the argument that they are Israel’s feasts and not for anyone else to observe is just as silly, because in the end they are God’s feasts!

So, who is being addressed does not trump what is being said.  When a command is given to specific groups or people, that is one thing.  However, when the statement is a general statement of truth, then saying it doesn’t apply just because of who is being addressed is twisting Scripture.

When God told Pharaoh that He performed certain signs in order that he may know “that I am the LORD” over and over, does that mean we should not know He is the LORD?  Of course not!

However, we cannot let Israel go out of Egypt in order to worship God.  That should be obvious.  Just as obvious should be when something God says is general and when it is specific.

This is the lowest form of discernment, friends.

From here, you may:

Go back to the Introduction

Go back to Part 3

Go on to Part 5

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