Bible Study, Tip #1
God inspired the authors of the Bible to write down His Word for us, which is clear from passages like Rom 15:4: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (All quotes are from the ESV.)
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul lists several examples of what happened to the Israelites in Old Testament times and says,
The main aim of Bible study is to extract meaning from the text and work out what application there is for us today. However, we need to realize that, while the Bible was written for us, it was not written to us. The inspired authors of the Bible wrote thousands of years ago in cultures vastly different from our own. They also wrote in different languages from ours, and what we read, unless we are fluent in ancient Hebrew or Greek, is a translation.
The main aim of Bible study is to extract meaning from the text and work out what application there is for us today.
A lot can be lost in translation, and while experts in ancient languages have done their best to convey the original meaning in a language we can understand, we should not fall into the trap of reading the Bible through our 21st-century lens. That trap is especially pertinent when it comes to ecclesiastical words and ideas like “church,” “grace,” and “atonement.” 21st-century dictionary definitions, and our modern-day concepts of biblical words and phrases, always need to be checked against what was the original intent of the author.
The first step to sound Bible study is to find good modern translations where the translators have done their best to be faithful to the text. We often don’t need to turn to lexicons to find a better translation of a word; that spadework has been done for us by the translators. But the English rendition of words and phrases cannot always bridge the cultural divide, and words lose their meaning over time. To help us with understanding the original intent of the author, we have a wealth of resources at our disposal. Finding useful Bible dictionaries and commentaries, where the authors have studied the original cultural and historical background of the Biblical text, is part of sound Bible exposition.
To help us with understanding the original intent of the author, we have a wealth of resources at our disposal.
But what makes for a useful resource? A rule of thumb is to choose commentaries and dictionaries that are part of a peer-reviewed series with excellent editorship, such as books produced by InterVarsity Press. Typically, expertise in ancient languages, history, and culture, have been incorporated to create such works.
Much of the Bible message is clear for us without these resources. But our Bible study can be enriched by finding ways to get back to what the original readers would have understood. When we gain that knowledge, then we are going to have a clearer understanding of how to apply the lessons to ourselves in the 21st century.
THE PURPOSE OF BIBLE EXPOSITION
The word exposition can sound a bit stuffy and academic, but it’s at the heart of Bible study. An exposition, whether Biblical or not, is a description or explanation of an idea. Let’s take one example from the Bible, say one of the feasts of the Law of Moses. How about the feast of tabernacles? An exposition of the feast would be a description of the feast, explaining the various elements of it. That’s very useful because wouldn’t it be better for an Israelite to know why they were attending a feast? Understanding the “why” of something is at the heart of biblical exposition. We believe in one God, but why? Why is it necessary, and why does it matter? The descriptive element of an exposition gets to the “what,” “where,” “how,” and “when,” but the “why” is what matters most.
Let’s go back to the example of the feast of tabernacles, or booths because it was the topic of an exposition in Nehemiah 8. Verse 1 tells us,
Verse 14 tells us it was at the time of the feast,
and the end of the chapter tells us they kept the feast.
Bible exposition is about striving to understand the reason behind the inspired words. It’s about understanding what God wants us to learn from these things.
In between, there’s a word that pops out of the text: “understand.” You’ll find it in verses 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, and 12. To understand something is more than knowing it intellectually or academically. The teachers in Israel, the Levites, had the task to help the people understand the passages they read from the Law. Bible exposition is more than just going over the various stories and events of the Bible; it’s striving to understand the reason behind the inspired words. It’s about understanding what God wants us to learn from these things.
Verse 7 tells us the Levites,“helped the people to understand the Law” and the next verse tells us how they did that,
What they’re doing is giving an exposition of the Law. They didn’t just stand up and read from the scroll of the book of Deuteronomy; they did it clearly.
That’s more than just enunciating the words correctly and speaking loud enough so everyone could hear. The same word is found, for instance, in Num 15:34, where it says of a man who had been gathering sticks on the Sabbath that they “put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him.” It was made clear in the following verse. In other words, the Levites explained it to them—just like an exposition.
The root of the Hebrew word used here, paras, means to “break up.” So, perhaps the Levites broke the reading up into sections or read it paragraph by paragraph, which is how some interpret it. However, the New American Commentary on Nehemiah suggests it has the meaning “to translate” and makes the point that the people listening to the Levites might not have spoken Hebrew having been in captivity in Babylon for seventy years. They also bridged the gap between the culture they were used to in Babylon and their cultural heritage from the Book of the Law.
The chapter tells us the Levites “gave the sense” of the reading. The word “sense” is a synonym for the word translated “understanding” throughout the chapter. In other words, their exposition was what enabled the people to understand. In our modern times, it would be the equivalent of a Bible school with a series of classes given on the book of Deuteronomy.
There’s an interesting word at the end of verse 8. The Levites helped the people “understand the reading.” The word “reading” in Hebrew is miqra, and everywhere else it’s used, translators have used something like “convocation” or “assembly,” the calling together of a large number of people.
A convocation has been going on from verse 1 when “all the people gathered as one man into the square.” So, really what they’re doing is explaining why the people gathered. We’ve already seen from verse 14 it was the time of the feast of tabernacles. So perhaps what was going on here was an exposition of what the feast of tabernacles is all about.
What they’re doing, in effect, is obeying the principle of Deut 31:10-13. That passage says
We can take several principles from this little study of Nehemiah 8 to apply to our exposition of the Word of God.
First, understanding the context is essential. Looking at the context is as simple as looking at the chapter as a whole. That way, we can understand what’s going on, rather than looking at verses in isolation. We did that when we saw in verse 1 that the whole assembly came together, and later learned in verse 14 it was at the time of the feast of tabernacles. That provides a framework for understanding what the text is telling us.
It’s when we ignore context or put our framework over the text, for instance reading it through our 21st-century bias, that we run into problems.
We also considered the broader context of the historical and cultural background, the fact the people had been in captivity for seventy years and probably spoke a different language from the text written on the scroll. Context is vital in understanding the Word of God. The context of the text itself, the literary genre (i.e., if it’s a poem, epistle, etc.), and the historical and cultural backgrounds all provide us information to understand the text more accurately. It’s when we ignore context or put our framework over the text, for instance reading it through our 21st-century bias, that we run into problems.
Second, we looked at the keyword “understand” and found it helped explain what was going on in the text.
Words, phrases, or ideas that pop out of the text help us see the primary purpose of what we’re reading. Nehemiah 8 is about getting newly transplanted people to understand their cultural heritage as the people of God. Finding keywords or phrases comes from reading the text more than once.
Reading is probably the number one skill required for good Biblical exposition. Reading and re-reading the text we’re studying, as well as keeping up with our daily readings, is going to help us retain the information and provide us with the opportunity to meditate on and mull over the Word of God.
Third, we saw the importance of understanding the text in its original language. The people themselves had to have it translated for them, and we looked at two words, paras (clearly) and miqra (convocation).
Using a concordance search, we can find other occurrences of the words to see how they are used and translated elsewhere. We did that with the word miqra, translated “reading” in Nehemiah 8 but “convocation” or “assembly” elsewhere, helping us understand what the passage in Nehemiah might have been telling us. We also looked at what it might have meant for the Levites to be reading “clearly.” We also have access to valuable lexicons, where we can find definitions of the word used in Scripture.
Finally, there’s intertextuality. That’s the technical word for what we usually call Bible echoes, the way the Bible refers to itself through similar language and ideas or by directly quoting or alluding to other passages. We saw one example of this in the connection between Nehemiah 8 and Deuteronomy 31. One passage explains the other or fills out some of the meaning. Finding links like this can only come by what we mentioned above as the most important aspect of Bible exposition— reading. Reading the text itself, looking in the margin for clues, and doing our daily Bible readings, so we notice Bible echoes, is all-important.
Our task as Bible expositors is to explain the text. That means seeking to understand what the text says and not putting our ideas into it. That’s the difference between what scholars call exegesis—reading out from the text what it says—and eisegesis— reading into the text what we want it to say. Sound exegesis, rather than eisegesis, is about careful reading and understanding of the context. It’s about looking at clues in the text itself as to what the main themes are. It’s also about the proper use of resources like concordances and lexicons and letting Scripture interpret Scripture via its intertextuality.