The most difficult task of a pastor is not defending the deity of Christ, working out issues of ecclesiology within the church, nor is it articulating the doctrines of grace. The most challenging role of a pastor is teaching people how to interpret the Bible. In fact, if people can interpret the Bible properly, it takes care of most of the other issues in the life of the church. Pastors have classes in biblical hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) in seminary, but the fact is, this study is not reserved for pastors alone.
As you can see in the clip above, Oprah Winfrey recently appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and they engaged in a brief discussion about the Bible. They were talking about their favorite Bible verse. If you listen to Oprah closely, you will hear her make some really big interpretative mistakes. I want to break down what she said in order to demonstrate her error in biblical interpretation.
- First, she quotes Psalm 37:4 without considering the context.
- Then, she focused on the word “delight” and said that she really likes the word “delight.” However, she doesn’t attempt to define it in the Hebrew language in which it was written.
- Oprah then made a classic mistake. After quoting the verse, she said, “Now, what that says to me…” This is a classic mistake in biblical interpretation. The Bible is not left open to private interpretations. Our goal in reading the Bible is to return to what the original author intended. In this case, what did the Psalmist mean or intend when he wrote Psalm 37:4?
- At that point, she moved on to define LORD, the sacred name of God (YHWH). She said, “LORD has a wide range, what is LORD, compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues where the character of the LORD is revealed.” She simply redefines the name of God and substitutes virtues in God’s place. There is absolutely no biblical interpretative method that would lead to Oprah’s interpretation. Not one single Bible scholar would support her answer. Her answer is based on mysticism and a blatant misuse of the Bible to serve her own desires.
- Oprah concluded by suggesting that if you delight yourself in those virtues that she previously quoted, you will receive the desires of your heart. Another clear mistake is her unbalanced emphasis upon the “desires of your heart.” She doesn’t consider what the heart is without a proper understanding and relationship to the LORD. Therefore, what she fails to realize is that the heart is deceitful and wicked. However, her interpretation of the word “desires” is rooted in health, wealth, and prosperity theology.
In order to avoid the classic mistakes of heretical theology, it’s essential to understand how to approach the Bible and how to read it as God intends. Below are some helpful tips regarding Bible reading and interpretation.
- Tip #1 – Interpret the Bible in Context: What does this mean? It means that we should read the Bible verse by verse through entire books of the Bible rather than merely cherry picking verses from the middle of a letter and trying to import meaning on a verse that may have a different meaning altogether. Always avoid the classic mistake – “What does this verse mean to you?” Honestly, it doesn’t matter what it means to you. It matters what it meant to the original author. Suppose you found a letter in your grandparent’s attic after they died. Suppose it was a letter from your grandfather to your grandmother. How would you come to the conclusion of what your grandfather intended and desired for your grandmother to know by the letter? Would you start in the middle? Would you start at the end? Would you pick a couple of highlights and create a nice outline and perhaps make it rhyme? No. You would start at the top and read the entire letter and consider the vocabulary, tone, and implications as you read. In that same way, we should read the Bible.
- Tip #2 – Define Words: Defining the words will help unpack the meaning of the original author. It would be helpful to especially define the verbs in the sentence and it shows movement and action in the author’s intent. We must remember that the Bible wasn’t originally written in English. We do have really good translations of the Bible in our language, but the Bible was primarily written in Hebrew and Greek originally. Looking at the original languages and defining the words is a key to understanding the meaning of the text. You can find great resources at Logos.com or BlueLetterBible.com.
- Tip #3 – Avoid Eisegesis – The goal in biblical interpretation is to pull out of the text the true meaning of the verse. This is often called exegesis. Unfortunately, in many cases, people are guilty of eisegesis which is the practice of importing meaning into a text rather than extracting the meaning from the text through exegesis. In simple terms – our goal in reading the Bible is to find the meaning in the text and lift it out rather than doing what Oprah did in the clip above. She imported her own meaning into the Bible which avoids the real meaning and violates the sacredness of God’s Word.
- Tip #4 – Look for the Single Meaning – Remember, each passage of Scripture found in the Bible has only one single meaning. It cannot have a meaning for you and a meaning for me. It has one meaning and it’s our goal to locate the single meaning through proper reading, defining terms, and seeking to understand the text through a proper lens of the original author. Walter Kaiser said:
Any successful exegete must face the question of intentionality. We are most confident that the meaning of any given word (and therefore its text and context) will be discretely contained in in a single intention of the author. 
- Tip #5 – Interpret the Bible as God’s Word – The Bible is a unique book. It is the Word of God to human beings and it contains a wide array of information. At the heart of the entire Bible is the redemptive plan of God. It can be traced from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22. We must read the Bible with humility and respect. As we read the Bible, we can consider what God would have us know about Him. We must also recognize that God’s Word serves as a mirror to reveal the true identity of our depraved human heart. Steven Lawson, in his sermon titled, “Is the Bible Just Another Book?” said, “I’ve read other books, this book reads me.”
- Tip #6 – Pray – Before you read and interpret the Bible (and during), it would be a good practice to pray. We depend upon God to give us wisdom as we read the Bible. The natural man (and mind) cannot understand the things of God because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14).
- Tip #7 – Examine Your Interpretation – If the final outcome of your interpretation serves to exalt the fleshly desires of the human heart rather than praise and exalt the character and holiness of God – there is likely a mistake in your interpretation. For instance, as Oprah was using Psalm 37:4 as a means of getting her fleshly desires met, we must realize, that’s not the aim of that particular verse. You can also read trusted commentators from church history along with trusted Bible teachers from today to see where your interpretation lines up with their understanding of the verse. How close are you? Are you in the same ballpark? If Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, Matthew Henry, and Jonathan Edwards from church history are miles apart from your interpretation, there is likely a problem somewhere in how you came to your conclusion. If trusted Bible teachers such as James Montgomery Boice, John MacArthur, John Piper and others disagree with your position by a long shot, you will likely need to reconsider how you came to your conclusion.
If you sit under good Bible preaching each week in the context of your local church, you will notice that your pastor will seek to move systematically through the Bible in a verse by verse method. Watch how he approaches the Bible. Notice how he seeks to define vocabulary. Notice how he links the context of the passage each week. In that same way, you can read the Bible in your personal devotion. Avoid hopping through the Bible without any method to your madness. Likewise, these same principles will be of great aid in your family worship in your home each week.
Do not interpret the Bible like Oprah Winfrey. Just as little boys watch professional baseball players to develop better swings and glove skills, we can learn much by watching good Bible preachers and teachers handle the Word of God. Avoid the poor examples and learn much from the good examples.
- Toward an Exegetical Theology, 2006, 113.