One of the most significant lessons I have learned about interpreting and teaching the Bible is captured in a small poem written by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). This is not to say that Kipling was specifically writing about the Scriptures at all. Rather, he had begun his career as a journalist, and continued to intermittently work that craft even though he became famous for his books, short stories and poetry.
Since God chose to reveal Himself and His will to us through the seemingly ordinary means of human language and writing, it makes sense that we can understand that revelation using the same principles with which we seek to discern other communications in human language.
Some of us who are older were probably exposed to Kipling’s writings through titles like The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, and The White Man’s Burden. The following poem was included with a short story entitled, “The Elephant’s Child,” written soon after his 6-year-old daughter’s death.
I Keep Six Honest Serving Men
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.
I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes
One million Hows, Two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!
The references to “a person small” probably reflected the incessant questioning that his beloved daughter was capable of. But the greater poem reflects both his own journalistic bent, and bemoans the fact that most adults tend to stop being so curious and questioning as they grow up. A good journalist like Kipling always sought to answer the questions of What, Why, When, How, Where and Who when seeking to report a news story.
I first encountered this concept in my Hermeneutics course at Florida College in 1969-70, which was taught by Roy Cogdill. Our textbook was Principles of Interpretation, by Clinton Lockhart. Written about 1900 the textbook knew nothing of Kipling, but did emphasize the value of asking these basic questions when interpreting a Bible passage. I next recall encountering it with greater impact, including Kipling’s poem, in a book by author Terry Hall entitled, Getting More From Your Bible (now out of print).
In almost every message, lesson, sermon, or article I present, I have tried to answer these questions concerning the text. However, I have added one more “honest serving man” – “How Much.” Seeking answers to these simple questions does not nullify the need for understanding the original language, culture, broader context, etc. The “Seven Honest Serving Men” go together with the other essentials to make a good hermeneutical methodology. I would even insist with my students that unless they have answered these seven questions, they have not yet properly exegeted the passage they are studying.
The image is a drawing by Rudyard Kipling himself illustrating his “The Elephant’s Child” short story. This story also included his “Six Honest Serving Men” poem. Image courtesy of Commons.Wikimedia.org.