Hermeneutics is the technical word for the study of interpretation. We “do” hermeneutics every day in the routine of our lives. Anytime we receive messages from someone else—whether written, verbal, or non-verbal—we must “decode” those messages to arrive at what we believe is what the other person was trying to communicate. Some messages are much clearer than others, i.e. less prone to interpretational difficulty. For example, “Watch Out!,” is less likely to be misunderstood than, “that’s an interesting painting.” Some messages are actually designed, like the one about the painting, to be arbitrary. When my mom doesn’t like a particular food, she will call it “different.” Technically there is nothing untrue about calling something “different,” but the real purpose is to avoid the unpleasant social situation of telling the cook that his food stinks. Since I am aware of this (having made some “different” food of my own), I am a better “interpreter” of what my mom really means, than is someone she has just met. Knowing what the “code” is, my hermeneutical abilities in this one area are better than others due to experience.
Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us that “the secret things belong to the Lord.” This passage has been used countless times by pastors and teachers to try and wiggle out of interpretive difficulties in the Scriptures. In his second epistle, the apostle Peter admits that some things in Paul’s letters are “hard to understand.” He further informs his readers that “the ignorant and unstable twist [Paul’s words] to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15-16). In this passage, Peter is warning his readers of the very real danger of improper hermeneutics. He tells them that misinterpreting Scripture can actually lead to destruction. This is why James soberly advises his readers to carefully think about becoming a teacher: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). If God places such a price on His truth, and knowing that the “secret things” belong to Him, how can we know anything? The rest of Deuteronomy 29:29—the part that most pastors do not quote when they appeal to this verse—gives the answer: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”