How to study the Bible – David Ricci, Online Contributor
Before any good Bible study can be accomplished preparation of the heart is essential. This practice may be accomplished through prayer and revering God’s Holy Word. When we come before Scripture we come before God, who has spoken fully and finally in His Word. Heart preparation functions profitably in several ways. First, we invite the Holy Spirit to aid us. He has written the word and is its most able expositor! (2 Tim. 3:16). Second, we make room in our minds and hearts for God to speak to us, which is the ultimate goal in Bible study. Third, we guard our hearts against both doctrinal error and the kind of self-insulation that protects us a little too much from the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17). Studying the Bible is not a detached and abstract exercise. God reserves the right to shape the student of His word at any time as he or she proceeds. With a good heart, the student of Scripture may “go to work” (2 Tim. 2:15).
The study of Scripture requires restriction to the text and the student must resist the urge to make instant application. To try to transverse (go over) the intervening centuries between the writing of the Bible and today is hazardous. Don’t put the “cart before the horse.” You will need an understanding of the scope of revelation, a basic knowledge of hermeneutics, and tools to accomplish your goals.
First, let’s look at “scope” or big picture. Think of the Bible as a long movie, with a beginning, a plot, and a climax. Doing biblical theology requires one to recognize the progressive nature of revelation. This means there is an order to understanding Scripture. You cannot begin viewing a movie in the middle, can you? Of course not! Here’s where a general sense of the Bible informs particulars. Before we study, for example, the Book of Isaiah (ca. 700 BC), we must be aware of what comes before, both theologically and historically. Isaiah—and the other prophets, for that matter—sometimes gives the reader little clues or “tip-offs” as to what they are referring to without always fully explaining things. For example, when God speaks to His people in Isaiah chapter one, he mentions various kings of Judah (1:1), calls upon the “heavens” and the “earth” as witnesses (v. 2), says that Israel “continues” to rebel in verse 5 (What are the other times?), speaks of a disaster that leveled the land in verses 7 – 8 (What happened and When?), mentions Sodom and Gomorrah in verse 9 (Who are they?), and more. All this occurs in a few verses. Isaiah expects readers of his book to know their stuff! He actually expects a method that starts at the beginning (as in Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning . . .”)!
Get the point? But, you say, “This sounds like work.” Exactly! But it is the best and most exciting task in the world! Isaiah has quickly given the uniformed or mildly informed reader a “to-do” list. This brings us to our second concern, Bible tools. It has been rightly noted that today we have a wealth of tools to study the Bible, and we’ll talk about three of them. (We will not here cover Study Bibles.) They come in two formats: hard-copy (= books) and electronic (= software). Both are valuable and both enjoy a vibrant following. Here’s the skinny on kinds and functions. Neither will we distinguish between Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias as they operate nearly identically. Both are reference works (meaning that you don’t read them straight through, but look up things as you need to) that alphabetically list articles on Bible topics and related subjects. You can find, for instance, articles on places, like Jerusalem, and theological topics, like sanctification. These books, in either format, come in single- or multi-volume array. The shorter one-volume texts—and this applies to our next tool, commentaries—make finding things very fast and user-friendly, but there is an obvious downside: the longer reference works may take time plodding through but will likely answer more of your questions more fully and will address some issues related to your topic that the shorter books do not.
Commentaries are geared towards exposition or the explaining of Scripture in either a section-by-section or a verse-by-verse manner. Some one- or two-volume commentaries cover the entire Bible or Old Testament/New Testament and give great overviews and summaries of the text with some in-depth exposition as well; some add charts and maps and other user-friendly materials. These are great go-to texts for beginners and good quick peeks for pros on the go! Other commentary sets may not only dedicate one entire volume per book of the Bible but several volumes to one book. Whew! But as with our dictionaries and encyclopedias, these sets are not very likely to overlook some important issue you are concerned with, and most sets do lots of original language work, too. You would go to any commentary by first having a biblical text in mind, say John 1:1, and the writer will give you background, exegesis (the nuts ‘n bolts of things), exposition (what the text actually says), and sometimes, application (what it means for us today).
This brings us to Bible lexicons (a fancy term for word dictionaries). These works come variously pitched either towards those with little or no original language (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic) skills and do most of the work for the student, as well as towards those with strong language backgrounds. In an Old Testament lexicon you would learn, for example, that the Hebrew concept our English Bibles translates as “holy,” “sanctify,” “set apart,” “consecrate,” and so on, all goes back to one foundational idea or Hebrew “root” (qdš). There are also other tools, such as theology texts, atlases, concordances, and more, but we have covered three of the biggies.
Now we’ll look at the flashy stuff. Bible software is phenomenal. We should think of Bible software programs in three capacities. First, they duplicate electronically all of the resources that we have talked about so far. If you can put it in print you can put it in electronic format (only the smell and texture of a good book or study Bible is missing—for now!). Second, electronic formats allow Bible students features that printed books cannot. One is instant search capacity. Say you are reading Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV) and come to a word that looks interesting, or foreign, perhaps. With the click of a mouse you can track that word all throughout the ESV and find out where it occurs and how many times (concordance feature), and with another click or two you can go to the original languages if you desire. All this is laid out with color pie graphs, moving graphics, charts (attention visual learners!), and much more. Software also furnishes mapping features that allow one to click, hold, and drag the mouse, and instantly you can learn how far one city in Judah is from another, or how far Jesus traveled from one event to another. Amazing!
Third, electronic formats also offer profound portability. You can take your library on your laptop to your church office, to your friend’s house, to Starbucks, or to the mission field, in toto (= all of it!). Pardon the pun, but this is a huge advantage. My recommendation is Logos Bible Software (logos.com). Logos also allows you to download an app that connects to your Logos library using your tablet or phone. Logos has the best assortment of books, powerful features, color and charm, and user-friendliness. It is billed by the company as your “personal research assistant,” and that’s not a lie. My own library continues to grow in paper and electronic resources. Electronic tools like this make online learning easier, more efficient, and more fun than it ever was in the past.
Lastly, we will peek at hermeneutics (interpretation). Again, this article contends that nature of God’s revelation requires and intelligent or informed reader. The Bible is a coherent revelation from God but also one that spans roughly 1,500 years of writing, employs more than forty authors, and is written in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and in three continents. Within its pages the reader finds various intentions and genres (kinds of literature or writings). Therefore, the Book of Proverbs (Wisdom Literature) requires one mindset and a text like Revelation (Apocalyptic Literature) requires another one. The first mistake a student may make is to approach all the books of the Bible with the same methods of interpretation.
But, you say, isn’t all Scripture God’s word? Yes, it is. But wisdom literature tends to absolutize (every person who does x will experience y, or an example would be, all people who work hard become wealthy: but what about those who labor on the mission field?). And apocalyptic literature uses fantastic imagery that is not to be taken literally at all points (the beast of Revelation 13 will not look like the monstrous garb he is depicted in!). The writer of such literature never expected his audience to think such! Moreover, much of the Old Testament is written in poetry and requires the reader to use a little imagination and not always expect literal details. There are rhymes, wordplays, and more in the Hebrew text, hidden away and each form of speech or writing requires a particular understanding for proper interpretation. But when reading the Pauline Epistles, say, the apostle is speaking straightforwardly—unless he is using a figure of speech—and expects to be understood as such. All of these statements require qualification and elaboration but I trust you are getting the idea and are realizing that to view the study of Scripture in this manner does not lessen its worth or power but makes a person better equipped to understand God’s word more clearly. Hopefully, this sounds optimistically satisfying!
May God bless you in all of your labors for Him!
David L. Ricci, Ph.D. (ABD)