Interpretation happens when we figure out why a passage says what it says. We fail to interpret well when we fail to figure out why the passage says what it says.
The chief obstacle to excellent interpretation is observation.
Of course I don’t think observation is a bad thing. I’ve already written about how we should value careful observation. (See here for a few common examples of less-than-careful observation.) Careless observation leads directly to incorrect interpretation.
However, when you study the Bible, you can’t stay in observation. It’s easy to feel like you’ve really studied the Bible, when it’s possible that all you’ve done is observe.
For example, people often go to Romans 1:18-32 to show that humanity is sinful. Excellent observation! But why does Paul go to such great lengths to show how sinful humanity is? Perhaps it’s because he wants to tighten the noose slowly and imperceptibly around the reader. “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges” (Rom 2:1, ESV).
We find another example in Philippians 4:4-9. This passage is full of beautiful sayings commonly quoted by Christians. We love to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). We find great comfort in letting our requests be made known to God, with supplication and thanksgiving (Phil 4:6).
These are good observations. But why are these verses here? The Philippian church was experiencing a serious rift between two prominent women (Phil 4:2-3). So Paul sent instructions for resolving the conflict to one of his companions in the church. Read Phil 4:4-9 in that light, and the passage comes alive.
Old Testament narratives make up one last set of examples. As we observe these stories, we might notice all kinds of characters to either imitate or avoid, but we might fail to move into interpretation. Now viewing these characters as examples is not wrong (see 1 Cor 10:11), but it’s all too easy to stop with such observation. Why are the stories there? To show us Jesus, of course (John 1:45, Luke 24:44-47). The trick each time is to figure out how.
Remember not to let familiarity get in the way of your observation. And don’t let observation get in the way of your interpretation.