The most important rule in hermeneutics, which is defined as the ability to explain (or interpret) the Scriptures properly is a technique that is commonly known as the literal historical-grammatical method. One such website describes the literal historical-grammatical method in this manner:

Literal interpretation asserts that a biblical text is to be interpreted according to the “plain meaning” conveyed by its grammatical construction and historical context. The literal meaning is held to correspond to the intention of the authors. 

Hermenutics. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/hermeneutics-principles-of-biblical-interpretation

There are several qualities to note in terms of this description of the literal historical-grammatical method. The first quality to note in the above description is the words in Scripture are to be explained in their plain sense in the context where they are found. A second quality to observe about this particular description is Scripture must be explained by observing the normal rules of grammar, and the historical context of the passage. Failure to pay attention to grammar and history may leave the reader prone to explaining a passage of Scripture incorrectly. The last quality to observe in this description is this method seeks to observe the original intent of the author. The reader is not to attribute their own meaning to the text they are observing (i.e., eisegesis), but to draw out (i.e., exegesis) what the author desires to communicate.  For proper application of the Biblical text, one must follow this method in a consistent manner. In addition, a corollary quality of the consistent literal grammatical-historical interpretation of the sacred Scriptures is the glory of God. Once the reader understands and explains God’s word rightly a person can think and act in such a way that gives God glory because His word is understood properly.

One such example of the consistent literal grammatical-historical method can be found in the life of Joseph, as recorded in Matthew 1:18-25:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

Matt. 1:18-25 NASB

Observing the account of Jesus birth Mariam (Mary) had been betrothed to Joseph and discovered that she had been found to be with child by the Holy Spirit (v. 18). When Joseph discovered that she was pregnant, he did not condemn Mariam but made in mind to divorce her quietly (v. 19). While he was sleeping an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told them to take Mariam as his wife and that the baby that Mary carried was from the Holy Spirit (v. 20). It was then that the angel communicated the name of this Child, Jesus, which was associated with the purpose of why he was born, which was to save his people from their sins (v. 21). Matthew underscores this was a fulfillment of the what Isaiah the prophet had written concerning a virgin who would bear forth and son, and this son was to be named “Immanuel” (God with us) (v. 23). Joseph by the command given by the Lord through the means of an angel did what was commanded of him and took Mariam as his wife (v. 24). The last verse in this section tells the reader what Joseph did while Mariam was pregnant. The text reads that he kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son (v. 25). In other words, Joseph did not lay with his wife until after she conceived because it was important that she remain a virgin due to the prophecy was given by the prophet Isaiah.

How does this particular account in Joseph’s life highlight a consistent literal-historical grammatical hermeneutic? Let us observe several points:

  • Joseph understood the term “virgin” in Isa. 7:14: The Hebrew term for the word virgin found in Isaiah 7:14 is the word almah (עַלְמָה). Notice the angel told Joseph to take Mariam as his wife, however, the Lord by way of the angel did not tell Joseph that he was not supposed to have intimate relations with Mariam. The fact that Joseph kept her a virgin until she conceived the Child revealed that he observed this particular word in the book of Isaiah in its plain sense. 
  • Joseph understood the historical context of this event: Joseph being a Jewish man heard all of the Law and the Prophets. He, like all of the other Israelites, was waiting for the appearance of the coming of the Holy One of Israel to deliver them and dwell with them forever. In addition, this underscores Joseph’s response when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Due to the fact that Joseph kept her a virgin until she conceived highlights that Joseph understood the historical context of the book of Isaiah and how God would send the Child through Mariam who would save His people from their sins. 
  • Joseph understood the original intent of the author: This point is highlighted by Matthew, who wrote this account to affirm that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah who was sent by God. Joseph being an Israelite would have understood this well.  The fact that he did not know Mariam in an intimate way stresses he knew the intent of what Isaiah, inspired by God, was communicating to the Jewish people. 
  • Joseph understood this birth was tied to the glory of God: Joseph understanding this truth concerning the virgin birth was extremely important to the glory of God. If Joseph did lay with his wife at this time Mariam was pregnant, then God would have been a liar, and His word could not be trusted because Mariam would not have given birth to Jesus as a virgin. God’s glory hinges on the reality that God is faithful and truthful to all His promises. Joseph understood this reality and acted accordingly, and this gave God glory by His conduct showing that God’s word is indeed true.

There is no question that Joseph consistently observed this prophecy, and all of the prophecies concerning the Messiah in their plain sense, taking into account the cultural aspects and the grammar surrounding the context of the Old Testament. He understood that physical Israel would be delivered from their sin and idolatry concerning this Son who would be born of a virgin (based on the audience that God was addressing in the book of Isaiah). He understood that the nations would also be blessed by the Jewish Messiah and the deliverance of Israel (based on the prophecies found in the Old Testament). In addition, He also understood this Messiah would be King over the nation of Israel, who would rule on the throne of David (which was a part of Joseph’s lineage), and would bring in an everlasting righteousness (also discussed in the Old Testament). Joseph understood these promises plainly and consistently, and there was no reason for him to believe anything else other than what the original author had intended.

As believers let us consistently observe all of God’s revealed word as Joseph did, using a consistent literal-grammatical historical method. Let us observe the words of sacred Scripture in their plain normal sense considering the surrounding context of the passage. Furthermore let us also consider the original intent of the authors of the books of sacred Scripture, paying close attention to the history and the culture of the sacred Text. By doing this we will not only explain God’s word rightly, but we ensure God in what He has communicated to us in His word will be glorified properly. 

Until next time…

Soli Deo Gloria!

Dr. L.S.

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