These days the word ‘interpret’ is a red flag to some people, who fear it is a license to distort the ‘plain reading’ of scripture down some slippery slope toward heresy.
But I’m trying to use it in a much less threatening way. We each have to interpret and apply this collection of writings we call the Bible personally, so our lives might be changed for the better. So we are (first of all) happier, and our words and actions will reach out to, and bless, others.
Psalm 119 calls God’s word a "lamp unto my feet". And that suggests to me He wants us on a path leading home – not wandering in the weeds, getting poison ivy and stuff. Or getting lost.
So we should read for understanding primarily because we want to interpret God’s messages clearly to help us live as He intended.
But, of course, our situation is not like, say, Abraham’s – herding sheep in a far country.
And we don’t go to the tabernacle or temple to have sacrifices done on our behalf.
Still all those stories, metaphors and admonitions, with careful interpretation, can apply to us.
For example, in Isaiah 1, we read:
I have more than enough of burnt offerings” …
“I cannot bear your evil assemblies” …
“Your hands are full of blood” …
“Wash and make yourselves clean” …
“Learn to do right! Seek justice”…
“If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land
It’s not too hard to adapt this context to understand that God is generally condemning hypocrisy and empty formality in religious practice.
But my hands aren’t literally "full of blood". And how might I fail to "seek justice" as I go to work, play with my kids or participate in church?
I could suggest some possibilities to you. Essays like this do that all the time. But eventually and foundationally you and I need to seriously, prayerfully interpret those words ourselves.
Or consider the famous faith chapter of Hebrews 11. Especially:
faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Isn’t this an oxymoron – like ‘jumbo shrimp’? To be certain of what we do not see? How would that fly with any of the (seems like hundreds of) CSI detectives on TV these days? Apparent paradoxes like these demand effort to be sensibly understood and applied. We will be in the weeds if our faith definition devolves into Mark Twain’s “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so”. Or making faith be like the ‘Little Engine That Could’ - just repeating “I think I can, I think I can.”
But there is something intuitively understandable and compelling as we read:
These people … did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.
Do we resonate with that sentiment? Can we, should we, will we, live our lives, feeling in the deepest regions of our soul that while today we are like aliens in a foreign country, by faith we can now act as citizens of heaven?
We have to interpret and apply every sentence for ourselves. And it is from within this effort that God speaks to us.
The result can be transformative.
But the work can be difficult.