If we are all honest most of us have parts of Scripture that we like more than others. There are also parts of Scripture that makes us feel uncomfortable theologically, for example most Calvinists feel uncomfortable with Hebrews 6 and most Armenians feel uncomfortable with Ephesians 1. Today in my reading I was reading through 2 Kings and came across a passage that many believers will feel uncomfortable with. The passage comes in the story of Naaman in 2 Kings ch. 5. We all know this story from Sunday school, how Naaman an Aramian Commander got healed by going to Elisha and bathing in the Jordan River 7 times. After this Naaman is speaking to Elisha and he says in verse 18 and 19,
“Except this, and may Adonai forgive your servant for it; when my master goes into the temple of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand, and I bow down in the temple of Rimmon – when I bow down, may Adonai forgive your servant for this.” Elisha said to him, “Go in peace.”
When I read this, everything inside me cries out saying “what do you mean Elisha “Go in Peace.”” Are you condoning Idol worship? At first glance this doesn’t make any sense. Are you saying that if your hearts in the right place then it’s ok to bow down to Idols. What about the boys in the book of Daniel when they refused to bow down to the Idol and where thrown into the fiery furnace. Why where they not permitted to bow down? These are all legitimate questions, but I think that the answers come down to two things; Maturity and Situation. How mature in the faith is the person? You cannot expect a new born baby to walk and talk so why do we expect new believers to do everything at the beginning. Also I believe that God deals with everyone in his own way and what God expects from me he may not expect from you and vice versa. In the last chapter of John Peter asks Jesus what about John and Jesus basically told Peter to mind his own business and not worry about how John would be dealt with. When Elisha said “Go in Peace” he was not condoning what Naaman may or may not do, but he was basically saying that it was between God and Naaman. Maybe if we put more emphasis into our relationship with God and how God wanted us to live and less time worrying about what some else was doing or not doing, we might all grow stronger as believers. As I said at the beginning, I feel uncomfortable with what Elisha said but in the end of the day God never told us that it was going to be comfortable.
One of the biggest problems in understanding prophecy is unlocking symbolism in the Bible. We don’t understand the language and we try to read it using our own understanding and cultural background. This will only take you so far but you will always come up short. One of the problems in our time is that many take some of these symbols literally. Yes some may be but not all will make sense if you are always looking for the literal reading. Once we can unlock the symbols in the text we will have an easier time in understanding what the prophet is actually trying to say to us.
One such example is the use of the word Mountain. On some occasions the Prophet is referring to a literal mountain but on many occasions he is referring to a Kingdom or Empire. It all depends on the context.
Let’s look at a few verses.
“My sheep wandered around aimlessly on every mountain and hill; yes, my sheep were scattered all over the land, with no one to search for them or look after them.” (Ezekiel 34:6)
Obviously God’s sheep (The Jews) were scattered in the Diaspora into different nations, so the word “mountain” is symbolic for nation, empire, or kingdom.
“We wish you would tear open heaven and come down, so the mountains would shake at your presence! It would be like fire kindling the brush, and the fire then makes the water boil. Then your enemies would know your name, the nations would tremble before you! When you did tremendous things that we were not expecting, we wish that you would come down, so that the mountains would shake at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-3).
We see here again that mountains and nations is interchangeable and many times in prophecy refer to the same thing.
Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, and ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we are unafraid, even if the earth gives way, even if the mountains tumble into the depths of the sea, even if its waters rage and foam, and mountains shake at its turbulence. There is a river whose streams gladden the city of God, the holy habitation of Elyon—God is in the city. It will not be moved—when daybreak comes, God will help it. Nations were in turmoil, kingdoms were moved; his voice thundered forth, and the earth melted away.”
In verse 3 above, the “mountains shake” and in verse 6 “the nations are in turmoil” and “kingdoms were moved”. So, when comparing verse 3 and 6 we can conclude that the “mountains” are nations/kingdoms. Besides that mountain here clearly means nations, it is interesting from this verse and many others to note that waters and rivers are the flow of nations, peoples and tongues. This is exactly what John interpreted in Revelation 17:15 “And he said unto me, the waters you saw, where the whore sits, are peoples, multitudes, and nations, and tongues.”
To understand what something means, we must always first go to the Bible, and with a simple search we can easily find the meaning. Now we can understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”
In other words, if we have faith, we can affect kingdoms and nations. This is so true. Yet so many have taken this literally and made the Bible sound like a book of magic.
Those of us who are believers are always aiming to interpret and to understand the Bible in a better and more clearer way, so that in the long term we will have a closer walk and understanding with God. If this isn’t your aim as a believer may I ask you why not?
There are many different tools to use in interpretation but I wish to share a few with you. I apologise if you have heard them before as they are widely known but I thought I would share them anyway.
One of the best ways of interpreting scripture in my opinion comes from the Jewish school and this is known as “pardes” which means garden in Hebrew. Pardes is an acronym which stands for four layers of unerstanding:
P’shat — the plain sense. The first one concerns taking the text for what it is literally. This is probably the most obvious one but many people miss it. In other words the text means what it says and this should always be your starting point in understanding Scripture.
Remez — a hint within the text itself. Since every word and letter in the original Hebrew and Greek wasw given by divine inspiration, even a single letter can be a key to profound meaning. For example in Genesis 2:7 we read, “And the Lord God formed man…” The Hebrew for he formed is vayyetzer, which is spelled with two yuds, the hebrew equivalent of Y. In Genesis 2:19, we read that “God formed every beast…” Here, the Hebrew word is vayetzer and has only one yud, even though the plain meaning is identical. This is a remiz, or hint, that man, in contrast with the beasts, has two natures, an animal nature and a divine nature.
D’rash — a deeper reflection based on the text. This term is the basis for midrash, the creative explication of Scripture, that underlies so much Jewish interpretation, and appears in the New Testament as well.
For example Paul employs midrash in 1 Cor. 10:1-4 “For, brothers, I don’t want you to miss the significance of what happened to our fathers. all of them were guided by the pillar of cloud, and they all passed through the sea, and in connection with the cloud and with the sea they all immersed themselves into Moshe, also they all ate the same food from the Spirit, and they all drank the same drink from the Spirit — for they drank from the Spirit-sent Rock which followed them, and that Rock was the Messiah” (CJB).
The idea that a Rock followed the Israelites throughout the wanderings is not based on a literal reading of Exodus. Rather, it is an imaginative expansion of the story that unfolds an important truth. Messiah was with our forefathers in their wanderings and is with us.
Sod — the mysterious or secret meaning. This level of interpretaion is often based on gematria, the numerical value of the Hebrew letters.
You do not necessarily need to use all four of these methods in understanding any particaular text and some texts wouldn’t lend itself to such interpretation. But there is more to the text if we only search deeper. We as believers are not called to live on milk for the rest of our lives but are called to feast and digest real meat. So I urge to dig deeper not so your intelect will expand so that you gain a greater understanding of God and improve your relationship with Him. Enjoy digging.