The Interpretation Canyon

Years ago I was teaching a class here at Calvary Bible Church about how to study, interpret, and apply the Bible. One Sunday, after I taught the importance of interpreting Scripture properly, a man in our church came up to me and said something like, “When I read the Bible, God speaks directly to me.”

As a Christian, I believe that the Bible is God’s word. Since it is God’s word, it communicates to God’s people; it is his way of speaking to us. So, when this man said, “When I read the Bible, God speaks directly to me,” I wanted to agree with him. I wanted to agree with him, but I could not. Since I had just finished teaching about how to interpret the Bible, his statement was not a statement of faith in the inspiration of the Bible. It was a rebuke. This man was rebuking me–indirectly and kindly, but still, it was a rebuke–for teaching that interpreting the Bible was necessary or important. My entire lesson on interpreting scripture was unnecessary, in his view. If God speaks directly to any and every Christian who reads the Bible, there is no need to develop or learn anything about interpretation.

If it is true that, “When I read the Bible, God speaks directly to me,” then what is God saying to me when I read Joshua 6:2-5? That passage says, “Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.’”

It is clear what God said to Joshua in Joshua 6 and what he was supposed to do with God’s word. Jericho was in front of him, it was a walled, fortified city. Instead of laying siege to it and starving the people out, or battering the gate with a tree trunk, God told Joshua and the Jewish people to just march around it. The wall would collapse after they did this thirteen times over seven days and then their army could attack the people inside with conventional weapons. God was calling Joshua and his people to trust him for a miracle to start the conquest of Jericho. They would have to fight (v. 5b), but only after God had miraculously done the hard part.

That was God’s word to Joshua and his people but if God is speaking directly to me in that passage, what exactly is he saying? I don’t live near Jericho and have no need to conquer it, so what is God telling me here?

Typically, if you believe that God speaks directly and personally through the word, you will take a passage like this one and allegorize it. You will read God’s promise to Joshua and think, “My boss’s decision not to give me a raise is like the walled, impenetrable city. I need to trust God to make his defenses fall so I can conquer the land and get that raise.” You might even go so far in claiming God’s promise that you drive or walk around the office building once a day for six days and then seven times on the seventh day before asking for the raise. That seems very spiritual, and you might even get that raise! But what if you don’t? Did you misunderstand the Holy Spirit? Do you misidentify Jericho–maybe it isn’t your boss or your company but your daughter’s boyfriend who needs to be defeated?

The Bible is God’s word and God does speak to us through the Bible, but not until we understand what he said to the original reader. This is one of the canyons I will try to teach you to cross.