Challenges in Interpreting The Bible

Many of you would be aware of my book, “Making Sense of the Bible: Surprising Insights That Will Change Your Perspective“. It has been out now for about 6 months. Today’s post is an excerpt from Chapter 5: Challenges in Interpreting The Bible.

The question of how to interpret the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is one that many Christians have not fully resolved. Having listened to many sermons over the years, I have concluded that even many pastors struggle with these issues. What relevance do the Old Testament stories have for today? In what sense can we take the words of a prophet, originally addressed to specific issues within the nation of Israel thousands of years ago, and apply them to Christians today? Are they applicable at all? It is at this point that many preachers and teachers resort to allegorism.


A classic example is the well-known story of David and Goliath, in 1 Samuel 17. Let us “visit” 3 different churches, to see how they apply this story to Christians today:

  • A Baptist Sunday School teacher is telling the story of David and Goliath, and has two helpers dressed as David and Goliath. She explains that Goliath represents the temptations we face as Christians which can, potentially, lead us away from God. She sticks a series of labels on the chest of Goliath – lust, pride, greed, dishonesty. She then explains that David’s stones represent the weapons we use to overcome these obstacles. The stones are labelled Faith, Prayer, Bible Reading, Fellowship.
  • In the Presbyterian church down the road, a different Sunday School teacher is teaching the same story to an adult Sunday School class. He explains that Goliath represents the secular forces in the world, which oppose God’s Kingdom. He sticks labels on Goliath’s chest – materialism, secularism, atheism, humanism. He explains that David’s stones represent the rationalist tools with which Christians must engage these secular forces. He holds up rocks labelled Apologetics, Philosophy, Theistic Rationalism and Creationism.
  • Across the road, the pastor of the Pentecostal Church is preaching on the same passage. He says that Goliath represents the negative forces that will stop you reaching your full potential in God: negative words of non-Christians, negative words of Christians, past negative experiences, self-doubt, the accusations of the devil. The stones represent your need to surround yourself with positive people, saturate your mind with promises of God, speak positively about yourself and your future, ask and believe for great things in your life, and overcome obstacles through the power of prayer.

Which one of these teachers is right? Are they all right? Are any of them right? Is it appropriate to allegorise the Old Testament in this way, particularly when the applications seem quite arbitrary? They are not drawn from the passage itself; they are concocted by the Bible teacher.

What is wrong with allegorisation? More will be said about this shortly, but at this point let us affirm two important principles:

1. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant.

We must not place meanings upon the text which were not there originally. Every passage has an original meaning, and it is our job to discover what that original meaning is. In other words, we cannot use the Bible as a convenient springboard to launch into whatever topic we want to discuss.

2. We must derive the meaning from the text itself, not read our own meaning into it.

This is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis refers to the process of extracting meaning out of a passage; in other words, getting the meaning from the passage itself. Eisegesis refers to the dangerous practice of reading our own meaning into a passage. If we are to become people who “correctly handle the Word of Truth” (2 Tim 2:15), we must learn the skill of laying aside our own preconceptions, and learn to see what a passage is actually saying, rather than what we want it to say.

These must be our two guiding principles as we read the Old Testament. We must not use the Bible as a convenient coat hanger to support whatever we want to say. We must work hard at uncovering the actual meaning of a text, rather than giving it an allegorical one. Otherwise we are no better than the secular motivational speaker who might use the story of David and Goliath to talk about self-assertiveness, or the sports coach who might use it to talk about underdogs who win.

So, what is the actual meaning of the story of David and Goliath?

There is one important fact that almost all allegorical interpretations of the story of David and Goliath overlook; and that is the fact that the oppression by the Philistines (including Goliath) was God’s punishment for the disobedience of the Israelites. It was their ongoing punishment for disobeying God by not driving out the inhabitants of the land of Canaan when they first arrived (Judges 1). It was also a more immediate punishment for choosing a King for themselves (Saul).

This is an important point. The oppression the Israelites were experiencing wasn’t simply some inconvenient obstacle to be overcome in order to receive the blessing that God had in store for them; it was the punishment of God himself for their rebellion. All of the allegorical interpretations that we’ve looked at so far have completely missed the point of the story, because they overlooked this one key fact.

Here, then, is the meaning of the story of David and Goliath:

  • Israel had disobeyed God and were under his judgment (in this case, oppression by the Philistines).
  • They were, consequently, oppressed by an enemy too powerful for them to overcome; they were unable to save themselves.
  • God had mercy upon them and decided to send them a saviour. God decided to save his people from his own judgment.
  • The Israelites did not recognise David as their saviour because he did not meet their expectations of what a warrior saviour would look like.
  • David stepped forward to represent the entire nation; one person doing battle on behalf of everyone.
  • David, the unassuming shepherd boy, saved the entire nation by his one heroic act.

Can you begin to see the meaning of this story now? It’s all about Jesus! The Saviour who comes to a people who are under the judgment of God; who steps forward to represent everyone – to take our place; a Saviour who is not recognised because he doesn’t meet most people’s expectations; a Saviour who takes our place and stands in the gap between us and our “enemy” (in this case, God the Judge, himself); a Saviour who, by his one heroic act, saves all mankind (at least, all who will follow him as Lord).

If there is any allegorical meaning in the story of David and Goliath, any hidden meaning at all, apart from the simple historical facts themselves, it is this one! It’s not about me and my fulfillment, or overcoming the obstacles in my life; it’s all about Jesus! Of course, it is entirely appropriate to make some applications to our own lives from the story of David and Goliath. We can consider David’s courage and his trust in God, and seek to emulate those qualities ourselves. We can note the fact that God can use anyone for his purposes, even those whom the world dismisses as unimpressive. There are certainly appropriate applications for us in the story, without the need to allegorise. But if we have failed to see the foreshadowing of Christ our Saviour in this incident, we have missed the main point!

Now, you may be thinking, “What makes your interpretation the correct one? Why is this interpretation right, and the others wrong?” The answer is simple; it’s not my interpretation, it’s the Bible’s, because this is the meaning that the New Testament attaches to the story of David and Goliath. On 17 occasions the New Testament refers to Jesus as the “Son of David”, and on 59 occasions the Bible points out the parallels between Jesus and David. For example:

Acts 13:23 “From David’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised”

This is in response to the many prophecies in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel that God would one day raise up another David, who would save God’s people forever:

 Ezekiel 37:25 “They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever”.

Isaiah 9:7 “Of the increase of his government and peace, there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever”.

This is why, at the start of Jesus’ ministry, the people asked, “Could this be the Son of David? (Matt 12:23). Jesus also made a point of identifying himself as the long awaited Davidic Saviour: “I, Jesus, give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” (Rev 22:16).

David is the strongest “type” of Jesus in the Old Testament. We will look at typology in detail later, but, for now, it is enough for us to understand that the life of David is a prophetic foreshadowing of all that Jesus would be and do. By interpreting the story of David and Goliath as an allegory of the saving work of Jesus, we aren’t forcing some arbitrary meaning upon the text (one that is not intended in the story), but rather, we are identifying the underlying theme that runs throughout the entire Old Testament; that the Old Testament is, ultimately, all about Jesus.

If you are interested in purchasing “Making Sense of The Bible: Surprising Insights“, it is available from my website,, and also from Amazon. For residents of Australia who live near the Sunshine Coast, QLD, you can save postage costs and buy the book directly from me this Sunday at Noosa Anglican Church where I will be preaching.