These have a show of wisdom, but both are false. Spurgeon explains below:
“In Holy Scripture the same word does not always mean the same thing. The Bible is a book meant for human beings, and therefore it is written in human language; and in human language the same word may signify two or three things. For instance, “a pear fell from a tree;” “a man fell into drunken habits.” There the meaning of the second word “fell,” is evidently different from the first, since it is not literal, but metaphorical. Again, “the cabman mounted the box; the child was pleased with his Christmas box;” “his lordship is staying at his shooting box.” In each case there is the same word, but who does not see that there is a great difference of meaning? So it is in the Word of God. You must explain the difference between a word used in a peculiar sense, and the ordinary meaning of the word, and thus you will prevent your people falling into mistakes. If people will say that the same word in Scripture always means the same thing, as I have heard some assert publicly, they will make nonsense of the Word of God, and fall into error through their own irrational maxims. To set up canons of interpretation for the Book of God which would be absurd if applied to other writings is egregious folly: it has a show of accuracy, but inevitably leads to confusion.
“The obvious literal meaning of a Scripture is not always the true one, and ignorant persons are apt enough to fall into the most singular misconceptions: a judicious remark from the pulpit will be of signal service. Many persons have accustomed themselves to misunderstand certain texts; they have learned wrong interpretations in their youth, and will never know better unless the correct meaning be indicated to them.”
CHS - The Swords and the Trowel’ Vol. 2, P. 293
The trouble is, the understanding of a text that is the ‘obvious literal meaning’ to me may be false. It may be anachronistic, so that some have understood ’through a glass darkly’ as having reference to a telescope - which had not been invented yet. The word ’mill’ may conjure up a false image to me. In my home county of Norfolk, we historically used water mills. In Kent and Sussex most mills were wind-powered. But in Biblical times they were either hand-driven or driven by an animal. Or take the word ‘corn’. In America that is usually understood of maize, but in Europe in the past it was used to describe wheat and Barkley and other cereal crops. We have laughed out loud when we have heard atheists use the mention of ‘corn’ in the Bible as evidence that the Bible is in error (what do they think, that it was made up in the last five hundred years?).
Again, in Apocalyptic and figurative language, the ‘obvious literal meaning’ as I might take it is false, because the author’s intent was to use language symbolically. What we seek in Biblical interpretation is not my ‘obvious literal meaning’, but what the Holy Spirit sought to communicate in the text.
Another caution that Spurgeon gives is against those who try to find new meanings for texts. This is always a very hazardous enterprise:
“Do not be carried away with new meanings. Plymouth Brethren delight to fish up some hitherto undiscovered tadpole of interpretation and cry it round the town as a rare dainty. Let us be content with more ordinary and more wholesome fishery. No one text is to be exalted above the plain analogy of faith, and no solitary expression is to shape our theology for us. Other men and wiser men have expounded before us, and anything undiscovered by them it were well to put to test and trial before we boast too loudly of the treasure-trove.”
- ditto, P. 296
It should be noted that Spurgeon was pre-millennial and held to a future restoration of the Jews. He was NOT, however, a Dispensationalist, and some of his harshest words about misinterpreting the Bible are reserved for the disciples of John Nelson Darby.