Hermeneutics: Examples I

Part 46 of 49

by Vern Poythress


Dr. Vern Poythress lectures in his New Testament course on biblical interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Art: Raphael, The Baptism of Christ, circa 1517


Hermeneutics is a branch of knowledge normally dealing with the interpretation of literary texts such as the Bible or philosophical works. Knowing what hermeneutics is and how to apply it to your study of the Bible will be key in understanding Scripture and proclaiming it to others.

At this point, it would be helpful to walk through how to explain passages using other verses. As a result, let’s look at Isaiah 52:11-12 and 2 Kings 14:1-20 as examples.

Isaiah 52:11-12

We’ll start with Isaiah 52:11-12, “Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord. For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight, for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.”

You would try to discern the basic message of these verses through exegesis and through rhetorical analysis, where you’ll try to understand how the passage as a whole fits together. Here’s what you want might come up with as a summary — depart from the unclean for you will be protected by God. And then you also have to head toward application.

Now, this is an area where I want to focus a little more because it’s one of the most challenging areas to do for the Old Testament in particular.

How a Bible Cross-Reference System Works

A good starting point in Cross-Referencing for the Old Testament in particular would be either redemptive history or topical relationships. This starting point I would cross-reference is quite valuable, and here, I’m showing you a page from the reference edition of the ESV Bible.

The ESV is not alone in including a cross-reference system. This list of verses will be in the margin or, in some additions, it will be at the bottom. Many Bible editions use this method to connect similar verses and facilitate greater understanding. Knowing how this system works is key to hermeneutics.

Essentially, there are superscript letters in the text that refer to the margin, where related verses are listed. For example, the letter “w” in this edition is attached to the first word “depart.” The verse numbers are also in the margin to help you find the references.

And then, you’ve got a list including Isaiah 48:20 and some verses from Jeremiah. Now, we have a picture of how this passage fits into a larger context. The verses are often related in terms of the overall, broad scale of historical time.

How to Examine Cross-Reference Verses

Let’s take a closer look at the related verses of this hermeneutics example and how they can help us understand Isaiah 52:11-12.

Isaiah 48:20

Isaiah 48:20 says, “Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!”‘

You can presuppose this verse by saying that the depart language in Isaiah 52 is referring to departing from Babylon. Where do I get that? There’s nothing in the context, immediately, that says exactly where we are departing from. So, this preceding verse helps and you can see the language of redemption is associated with this physical departure.

If you are starting from ground zero, this verse is a significant clue to understanding the salvific significance of these verses in Isaiah 52.

Jeremiah 50:8-9

Now let’s take a look at Jeremiah 50:8-9: “Flee from the midst of Babylon, and go out of the land of the Chaldeans, and be as male goats before the flock. For behold, I am stirring up and bringing against Babylon a gathering of great nations, from the north country. And they shall array themselves against her. From there she shall be taken. Their arrows are like a skilled warrior who does not return empty-handed.”

This is a prophecy of the Medo-Persian Empire and Cyrus. Of course, you have to fill it out historically. But there’s actually a conquest of Babylon. So, the departure turns out to be departing from that, which is being judged by God. This is also significant when we eventually come to apply this verse to the New Testament era.

Jeremiah 51:6-8 and 51:45

Jeremiah 51:6-8, “Flee from the midst of Babylon; let every one save his life! Be not cut off in her punishment…” You didn’t get that out of Isaiah, but it’s contrasting more in black and white terms. You see what it means to remain in the community of idolatry.

The verse continues, “for this is a time of the Lord’s vengeance, the repayment he is rendering her. Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, making all the earth drunken…” So, the judged are used by the Lord to judge others. It goes on, “the nations drank of her wine; therefore the nations went mad. Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken; wail for her!”

And then, Jeremiah 51:45. “Go out of the midst of her, my people! Let every one save his life from the fierce anger of the Lord!” Similar point, isn’t it?

Zechariah 2:6-7

Okay, let’s look at Zechariah 2:6-7, “Up! Up! Flee from the land of the north, declares the Lord.” The context is Zechariah’s post-exilic prophet.

The context is going back from Babylon. “Flee from the land of the north,” — from the standpoint of Israel, you get to Babylon by going up north, not straight across the desert —”For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, declares the Lord.” That is in exile.

“Up! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon.” Okay, there’s specifically the location.

“For thus said the Lord of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye: ‘Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me.’” So basically, it’s the judgment on Babylon and deliverance for God’s people.

2 Corinthians 6:17

Now, go back to the cross-references. It says sighted in 2 Corinthians 6:17. This is significant because the other verses have thematic relations, which you can clearly see. This one is an actual citation according to the editorial judgment. I think they’re right, but it’s a bit of a free citation because it’s combined with other things.

For context, the general theme is the distinctiveness of a Christian and not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. The verse says, “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing.” That’s clearly from Isaiah 52:11. “Then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” This material is taken from other parts of Isaiah.

Now, this is very important because it’s a New Testament application, and eventually, you want to reckon with that. It shows the relationship between physical departure from Babylon, the spiritual issue of the land of idols that is going to receive the Lord’s punishment, and spiritual redemption out of darkness into light, out of the power of Satan into the power of God, are other contrasts that Paul brings out.

Let’s start with 2 Corinthians 6:14, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” So, it’s all these contrasts.

You’ve already got a significant hint about where you’ll go over the application of the necessity of Christians to act in accord with the holiness that is fitting for God’s people. Now, you don’t want to go directly there, lest your sermon just be a moralistic lesson about being pure. But you’re given this New Testament connection, which you certainly want to reckon with.

Revelation 18:4

Let’s take a look at Revelation 18:4. “Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues.”

What’s the context? It’s the Babylon of Revelation, the woman, the prostitute. It’s a significant clue because it ties in with the themes of Christian purity and the temptation of involvement in the immoralities of the world. Babylon is a picture of the sexual immorality of lust for power and money. So, this stuff goes into that picture of Babylon that needs to be in the reckoning of Christian people.

Revelation 18:4 is not a quotation directly from Isaiah 52:11. It’s probably more directly pulled from Jeremiah 50:51, which has an extended discussion of the fall of Babylon. Some other parts of that are picked up in Revelation 17:18.

Okay, so that’s the end of our list for the theme of departing. But that isn’t the only cross-reference.

Cross-Referencing “You Who Bear the Vessels of the Lord”

The next one is marked with the letter “x” — “You who bear the vessels of the Lord” — which you can find in the margin. We will use the same process as above to explore this line.

Ezra 1:7-11

Ezra 1:7-11 is a rather extended discussion of the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem. Cyrus brings them out, they are given to Mithredath, the treasurer, and then they are ported back to the land of Palestine as part of the return.

So, what’s the relationship here? Well, it’s pretty straightforward, in this case, that the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled in Ezra — even in detail, that they are going to be vessels that the Levites are going to be carrying. And so Ezra is just following that, historically, what is from this standpoint of Isaiah, is prophecy looking forward. You also need to reckon how Ezra is related to the Christian era.

Examining “For You Shall Not Go Out in Haste”

The next cross-referenced line is Isaiah 52:12, “For you shall not go out in haste…” Let’s take a look at this section based on the verses in the margin.

Exodus 12:11 and 33 and 39

Exodus 12 is about the last of the plagues and the celebration of the Passover. In Isaiah, you’re dealing with the second exodus. If you didn’t realize that at first, then these cross-references would clue you in.

Exodus 12:11, “In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover.” Well, just that part, you shall not go out in haste, that’s the point. So this exodus in Isaiah is superior to the first exodus. I think that’s part of the point.

The other verses from Exodus 12 — 33 and 39 — make similar points about haste:

  • Verse 33: “The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste.”
  • Verse 39: “And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.”

So, with this much information, we really ought to go through all the rest of the cross-references, but I think you see how it works.

Drawing Conclusions

With the information from the cross-references, we’re ready to draw conclusions about some of the structures and logical structures that relate Isaiah forward to the Christian era.

The departure in Isaiah is a physical return from Babylon. It’s related to several elements, including:

  • The exodus.
  • The purification at the first coming of Christ where John the Baptist says, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire of purification.”
  • The Second Coming, related to the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18.

The purification of the First Coming is also related to the way Christians should be living, mentioned in 2 Corinthians 6.

When we gather all these elements and put them in a structure of Redemptive epics, we’re on the way to appreciating how the Book of Isaiah is analogically related to several different things at once.

Now, we can understand the theme of clean and unclean things in the Pentateuch because that is there in Isaiah 52, “Don’t touch what is unclean.” Of course, we know that’s symbolic for sin and righteousness now, and we don’t have to work our way through Leviticus, especially.

So, how now does this fit into the rest of Isaiah with its various themes, such as the polemic against idols and the picture of comprehensive salvation? Well, Babylon is a land of idolatry, so you want to take that into account.

The picture of comprehensive salvation is such a wonderful image that is unpacked in Isaiah 40 through 66. And you can look backward to Isaiah 52:7-10 for still further connections, or forward to Isaiah 52:13. This is a gold mine because Isaiah 52:13 is the beginning of the suffering servant passage. We think of it as Isaiah 53, but it actually starts in 52:13, right after our passage.

So, the things you see in these verses help you look forward to the New Testament in pretty obvious ways. This passage itself is actually quoted by Paul in 2 Corinthians 6.

The application is going to be in personal individual separation from sin. That’s undoubtedly part of what 2 Corinthians 6 has in mind. But also, potentially, ecclesiastical separation. The temple of God versus the idols of the heathen. Social and cosmic dimensions of purification.

In the new Heaven and new Earth, there will be perfect purity. Now, our job is not to kill non-Christians before the time, right? We’re evangelizing them and they will undergo spiritual death and resurrection if they receive the Gospel. But this gospel has cosmic dimensions and there will be a final judgment and a final comprehensive cleansing.

So, that gives you just a taste then of how you would work through a particular passage and uncover connections that would help you proclaim the passage in a Christian context.

2 Kings 14:1-20

I’ve deliberately, with this one, picked a passage that’s not so promising. It’s probably a slow start:

“In the second year of Joash the son of Joahaz, king of Israel, Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, began to reign.”

Already, we’re picking up in the middle of a narrative and you have to reckon with the fact that, ever since the separation after the death of Solomon, the rest of 1 Kings and all of 2 Kings follows the interweaving of the northern and southern kingdoms. So, this is the start and you date one through the reigns of the other, which is what’s happening here.

“His mother’s name was Jehoaddan of Jerusalem. And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, yet not like David his father. He did in all things as Joash his father had done. But the high places were not removed; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. And as soon as the royal power was firmly in his hand, he struck down his servants who had struck down the king, his father.”

In chapter 2, verses 20 and 21 there was a conspiracy and they killed Joash, the preceding king, the father of Amaziah. So that’s what it’s talking about.

“But he did not put to death the children of the murderers, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, ‘Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. But each one shall die for his own sin.’

Then Amaziah sent messengers to Jehoash, the son of Jehoahaz, son of Jehu, king of Israel, saying, ‘Come, let us look one another in the face.’

And Jehoash king of Israel sent word to Amaziah king of Judah, ‘A thistle on Lebanon sent to a cedar on Lebanon, saying, ‘Give your daughter to my son for a wife,’ and a wild beast of Lebanon passed by and trampled down the thistle. You have indeed struck down Edom, and your heart has lifted you up. Be content with your glory, and stay at home, for why should you provoke trouble so that you fall, you and Judah with you?’

But Amaziah would not listen. So Jehoash king of Israel went up, and he and Amaziah king of Judah faced one another in battle at Beth-shemesh, which belongs to Judah. And Judah was defeated by Israel, and every man fled to his home.

And Jehoash king of Israel captured Amaziah king of Judah, the son of Jehoash, son of Ahaziah, at Beth-shemesh, and came to Jerusalem and broke down the wall of Jerusalem for four hundred cubits, from the Ephraim Gate to the Corner Gate. And he seized all the gold and silver, and all the vessels that were found in the house of the Lord and in the treasuries of the king’s house, also hostages, and he returned to Samaria.

Now the rest of the acts of Jehoash that he did, and his might, and how he fought with Amaziah king of Judah, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? And Jehoash slept with his fathers and was buried in Samaria with the kings of Israel, and Jeroboam his son reigned in his place.

Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, lived fifteen years after the death of Jehoash son of Jehoahaz, king of Israel. Now the rest of the deeds of Amaziah, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? And they made a conspiracy against him in Jerusalem, and he fled to Lachish. But they sent after him to Lachish and put him to death there.

And they brought him on horses; and he was buried in Jerusalem with his fathers in the city of David. And all the people of Judah took Azariah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king instead of his father Amaziah. He built Elath and restored it to Judah, after the king slept with his fathers.”

How to Interpret This Passage

So, what do you do with this passage? Part of the difficulty of this passage is that it is not a clear moral lesson. If you want to do moralistic exemplary preaching, this is not a good place to start because Amaziah is clearly the chief character and he’s not completely good or completely bad.

The narrative starts out saying he’s basically a good king, though the high places were not taken away. There’s a lot of work to be done about the historical environment because people were worshipping on the high places, and in my judgment, that was okay until the centralization of the altar in Solomon’s time, although Solomon is now dead and gone. The temple is the one place where you ought to worship, but the people kept on doing this stuff.

Amaziah didn’t prevent it, though there’s no hint that he did it himself. And he starts out with a good beginning because he puts the murderers to death. America has deep reservations and scruples about capital punishment, but the Mosaic law says that it’s the right penalty for first-degree murder like this.

I think that is the just penalty. He did it and the writer makes a point of the fact that he didn’t put the children to death, which sometimes happened, by the way, in the ancient Middle East. You can see some stuff in a little of Hammurabi that’s quite unjust, that does this kind of thing, but Amaziah didn’t. So far so good, right?

But then you come to this episode with Jehoash. What do you do with that?

The Bible Leaves a Lot Unsaid

The Bible leaves unsaid a lot of things that modern American readers are curious to have answered. A classic example is wondering what was going on in Abraham’s mind when he was taking Isaac up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him. And we have all these interests, all these psychological speculations, like how it must have been awful for Abraham, but the book is just silent.

This silence is part of a strategy that modern literary theorists call show rather than tell. You show what happens rather than fill the narrative with commentary about its significance, and the reader is supposed to pick things up. One of the ways you pick up information is through moral evaluation.

There are exceptions, but these narratives often do not explicitly evaluate the moral failings or successes. Even with this thing about the Law of Moses, you have to infer it’s a good thing.

It’s pretty easy to say, “Well, if he’s keeping the law of Moses, that’s a good thing.” But the narrator doesn’t say in so many words that it’s a good thing. In many cases, you find out if an action is good or bad because of the consequences.

Finding the Divine Narrator’s Point of View

Sometimes, there will be speeches that, though they’re not technically inspired speeches, they show, as it were, the divine narrator’s point of view. Jehoash, who is the king of Israel, is not a particularly righteous king. In fact, none of the northern ones are all that good. But in this case, I think he virtually becomes a mouthpiece for God. Why else is there this rather long speech?

You have to get clues from why something is included. Well, it’s included because it happened, right? But there are lots of details that happened that aren’t included. So the fact that something is included is significant.

And in view of the result with Amaziah, I think there are significant clues that he should have listened. Verse 11 even says “But Amaziah would not listen.” That is a kind of turning point before the climax.

You can analyze the verses to figure out the meaning. The climax is the battle, right? The resolution is Amaziah’s defeat, which is a tragic resolution in this case because you’re seeing things from the point of view of the southern kingdom and Amaziah. But that’s a turning point.

This result implies, presumably, that he should have listened, which also makes me think that Jehoash at this one point in his life put his finger on what was actually happening, which is exceptional because he’s not actually a good king. He basically tells Amaziah, “You’re proud because you defeated the Edomites. But now, why get yourself in trouble?” It’s actually good advice, but Amaziah wouldn’t listen.

Now, we’ve got a kind of moral evaluation. Even though Amaziah is, in many respects, a good king, this is one point at which he fails. If he was really a good king, he could have tried to consult a prophet, right? Or consult his wise men.

There are other things he could have done. But it’s not as if it’s a gross and obvious violation of the Mosaic Law, like some of the other kings get into. It’s a failure in wisdom. He has one failure, and it has consequences that extend for the rest of his reign.

The Passage’s Moral Lesson

This passage is about life. I mean, it doesn’t work as a moral example, right? It’s life because you can live a comparatively good and peaceful life and sometimes make one mistake, and it’s devastating. Or maybe God is merciful, and you don’t suffer a lot from it.

You want to wrestle with the texture of this particular passage. Think about what it means for somebody like Amaziah and his subjects. Because here, they’ve had a modicum of Justice. They’ve had reasonable things from Amaziah. And then when he does this, it’s not simply that he fails, but people doubtless die in battle. It doesn’t say how many.

Jehoash breaks down the wall of Jerusalem, which is basically leaving the city exposed. It’s like killing off police officers.

He takes all the gold and silver, including the vessels that were found in the house of the Lord. So, Amaziah also brought shame to the name of God, and things happen to the dedicated vessels that should never have happened. Again, God lets it happen, but it is a clear failure in the sight of God as well as a failure with the people and hostages.

Also, think about what Jehoash taking hostages means. If you are a prominent citizen in the southern kingdom, it’s you and your family that Jehoash goes after, right? He takes a daughter or a son back to Samaria and puts them with some of the other people from the northern kingdom, and you have no guarantee you’ll ever see your child again.

It is just tragic. And the point of the hostage is, if the southern kingdom ever attacks or becomes obstreperous with relation to the northern kingdom, the northern kingdom says, “Stop it at once or I’ll slaughter these sons and daughters that are here under my control.” So you never know when that son or daughter is going to be slaughtered.

It’s such an agonizing situation. And why did it happen? Because of Amaziah. Part of the power of this passage, I think, is precisely that it is this mixed situation, in such a way, it’s kind of like our situations. When I read it, I think about a young woman that I knew years ago.

I knew her years ago and she was a single woman. She got pregnant through a boyfriend. She hoped that they would get married. The guy was a total jerk and she was left high and dry. She repented. She was a Christian woman. She repented and she didn’t get an abortion, praise the Lord for that. Okay, so she had the child, a nice little daughter. But who’s going to marry her?

Alright, single woman, with a young child. And she suffered the consequences of one sin. And not a particularly grievous sin. You can understand, you can sympathize, though sin is sin. But you can understand the situation where she’s with a boyfriend and she gets tempted and one sin. And this is life, you see. And God forgives her, praise the Lord, right? But that picture, that young woman, is a picture of all of us in some respects because sins have consequences. Life is serious in that way.

How 2 Kings 14:1-20 Points to Jesus

And now, you can connect the passage to Christ by saying that what you need is not only a good king, but a perfect king who makes no mistakes. Salvation comes through a perfect king who doesn’t leave this trail of things that have to be set right in his wake. He’s the one who is setting things right.

The young woman is still living with the consequences. As far as I know, she’s still alive and eventually got married. But you know, it was just years and years later.

This is a passage, I believe, that points forward to Christ. But it points forward to Christ in a complex way of your seeing the struggles with the tragedies and burdens and agonies of life in these hostages.

It’s just terrible continuing suffering when you think about it. And for us, we are all, in a sense, hostages of the devil until Christ redeems us. He has broken the power of death. He has broken the power of evil. Even though we still struggle with it to this day, we’ve come to a point where our king is no longer Amaziah.

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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Hermeneutics: Examples II

Part 47 of 49

by Vern Poythress