Hermeneutics: How to Read
and Understand the Bible

RULE #7: Distinguish relative or absolute texts.

  1. It is not unusual to emphasize important points by stating relative differences in absolute terms.
    1. Consider how Jews described Paul’s influence to stir up others against him (Act 21:28).
    2. Paul’s influence was relatively small, but the Jews were stressing his danger to Judaism.
    3. Be certain of this: the Bible is absolute truth, even when declaring a relative principle!
  2. When Scripture deals with an important subject, it may use absolute statements with relative force to drive the point home more strongly, given a context of hearers needing just one side.
    1. This is neither exaggerating nor lying – it is stressing a point by ignoring exceptions.
    2. The lack of modifiers requires our diligent study and easily confuses God’s enemies.
    3. James condemned worldly friends (James 4:4), but Paul allowed them (I Cor 10:27).
    4. Jesus condemned planning (Mat 6:31-34), but Solomon taught it (Proverbs 6:6-8; 22:3).
    5. James condemned swearing (Jas 5:12), but Paul himself swore (Rom 9:1; II Cor 1:23).
    6. Does Scripture prohibit curling hair, gold jewelry, and clothing on women (I Pet 3:3-4)?
    7. Does Scripture prohibit resisting any evil that might come our way in life (Matt 5:39)?
  3. Such a distinction is necessary to study Proverbs – short pithy statements conveying maxims of experience and inspiration.
    1. Proverbs are general rules needing some caution before making specific applications.
    2. The results of slothfulness and diligence are not always apparent (Proverbs 10:4; 13:4).
    3. There are incorrigible children that cannot be trained (Proverbs 22:6 cp Deut 21:18-21).
    4. Diligence definitely pays off, but not all diligent men end up with kings (Prov 22:29).
    5. Excellent speech is wonderful, but don’t expect kisses from every man (Proverbs 24:26).
    6. Sometimes you can cheer up a man with a word, but sometimes you cannot (Pr 12:25).
    7. Wisdom allows a caveat, “All other things being equal,” which applies to Proverbs.
  4. Analyze general statements for limitations. Watch universal words closely. Identify exceptions.
    1. Rules 1-4 are very helpful here, for they help determining what is absolute or relative.
    2. “All” is understood with very definite limitations in passages such as Acts 2:44; I Corinthians 6:12; and 9:22. Context and Scripture dictate the extent of the limitation.
    3. “World” is understood with definite limitations in places like Luke 2:1 and John 12:19.
    4. These statements can be synecdoche of the genus: universal words used for particulars.
      1. Universal words are put for a great part (Hos 7:4; Mat 3:5; Mk 1:33; Rev 13:3).
      2. Universal words are put for all kinds (Joel 2:28; Jn 12:32; I Tim 6:10; He 13:4).
      3. Universal negatives do not deny particulars (Matthew 5:34; John 3:32; 18:20).
      4. Universal positives do not affirm particularly (Mark 16:20; Lu 18:1; I Cor 4:17).
      5. Eph 1:22 and Heb 2:8 have all things under Christ, but what of I Cor 15:27.
    5. Consider the following examples of texts where universal statements are often abused.
      1. The “all men” God will have to be saved are all sorts of men (I Timothy 2:4).
      2. The “every man” Jesus tasted death for was every one of His brethren (Heb 2:9).
      3. The “whole world” Jesus atoned for were Gentiles as well as Jews (I John 2:2).
    6. Learn a few choice examples of universal expressions to force opponents to more study.
      1. They love “all” and “world,” but they hate the combination (Luke 2:1; Col 1:6).
      2. They love “not willing that any should perish,” but they ignore “all which he hath given me I should lose nothing.”