Course: How to Read Your Bible
What we want to talk about today in Session 6 is Basics of observation. Now this may seem obvious, but as we talk about it a little bit you’ll come to see that this is one of the most important things we need to slow down and do if we’re going to read the Bible well and study the Bible well.
Let me start with a couple of illustrations. We live near a road called Annie Russ Road. One day, a few months ago, I was driving down that road and all of a sudden I looked over to my right and I saw a pond that was back off the road. It was tucked into some trees. I had never seen that pond there before. Now I’ve been driving this same road for five years, and often through the year, numerous times a week, I’ve driven that road and I’ve never seen that pond. And admittedly, it’s kind of tucked behind some trees and not something that’s real obvious. You have to be looking for it. But I had never observed that pond before. My wife says it is a male gene where she can say something is in the closet, and I’ll say okay, and I’ll go into the closet and I can’t see it. It’s just not there. And I’ll come back out and I say, “Well, no, honey, it’s really not in the closet.” She’ll walk in there, and there it is. It’s just right there. Right in front of my nose. So I don’t know if that’s a male gene or just a George gene or whatever, but I don’t always see the things that are right in front of my eyes. By the laughter of the wives, I think that’s probably something hitting a chord there.
But at times, we will go through patterns of life in which we don’t see some of the most obvious things around us. We don’t really tune in because we’re not focusing in on those specific things. There was a naturalist back in the 1800s named Louis Agassiz, and he was a professor at Harvard, and he was known especially for a very unique pattern of teaching students in his classes. And what he taught them to do more than anything else is he taught them how to observe. He wanted them to learn about nature, and instead of just having them read textbooks about it, he taught them how to look very carefully at the details of nature. It is reported (although this is disputed) that his catch phrase was always “Study nature not books.” But what he did teach was to not take anything for granted, to go to nature, to get the facts in your hands, to look and see for yourself, and he said, “If I succeed in teaching to observe, my aim is obtained.”
He would take a student like Samuel Scudder who wrote about this later and the student would come to him and say, “I want to be in your class. I want to learn from you.” And this is what Scudder said about his experience. He said he was brought in immediately and a fish was set down before him in a tray.
And Scudder writes, “In ten minutes I had seen all that I could see in that fish. Half an hour passed. An hour. Another hour. The fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around, looked it in the face, ghastly. From behind, beneath, above, sideways, at three-quarters view. Just as ghastly. I was in despair. I might not use a magnifying glass, instruments of all kinds were forbidden. My two hands, my two eyes and the fish. It seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last, a happy thought struck me: I would draw the fish and now with surprise I began to discover new features in this creature."
When Agassiz returned later and listened to Scudder recount what he had observed, his only comment was that the young man must look again. Scudder continues, "I was piqued. I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish. But now I set myself to my task with a will and discovered one new thing after another. The afternoon passed quickly and when toward its close the professor inquired, ‘Do you see it yet?’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.’
The day following having thought of the fish through most of the night, Scudder had a brainstorm. ‘The fish,’ he announced to Agassiz, ‘had symmetrical sides with paired organs.’ ‘Of course, of course,’ Agassiz said, obviously pleased. Scudder asked what he might do next. And Agassiz replied, ‘Oh, look at your fish.’ In Scudder’s case the lesson lasted three days. ‘Look, look, look’ was the repeated injunction and the best lesson he ever had, Scudder recalled, a legacy the professor had left to me as he had left it to many others of an esteemable value which we could not buy with which we cannot part.
II. Observation: a key aspect of Bible study
Now the reason why I start with that illustration is because I believe, in some ways, that the most important aspect of Bible study is observation. It’s slowing down enough to look carefully at the text, and look at it over and over and over again because you cannot interpret, and therefore you cannot apply, what you never see.
When I was doing my study on Hebrews for my doctoral work, I read the book over and over and over and over and over and over again. Probably over a hundred times. And there were still times months after I’d begun that I would wake up in the middle of the night and have a thought and all of a sudden it would hit me some dynamic that was going on in the book.
And I think one of the lost arts of our culture is learning to think about a passage more deeply by looking at it very, very carefully, to slow down. We have a tendency to want everything fast and in quantity, so what we do is we get on Bible reading plans where we’re reading ten chapters a day and, boy, we’re just gliding through that stuff. And have you ever had the experience where you’re reading through that and you stop and you think, I don’t remember anything I just read. And you even go back a couple of chapters and you read and you think, “I don’t even remember any of this that I just read.”
What we need to do is to slow down. The Scripture places a great deal of emphasis on meditation, on just chewing on it more deeply. We need to place a greater emphasis on that.
III. Meaning of observation
Well, what is observation? Let me give you a definition. Observation is doing a very close reading of the text so that we see, become familiar with, and hear the important details of the passage.
Now in a few minutes we’re going to use Psalms 1 as an example and we’re going to start working through and I’m going to talk to you about certain things we want to look for when we do observation. But let me just say this: If you don’t get anything else from this session but just the discipline of thinking what I need to do at times is to slow down and ask questions about what’s there, and you read more slowly and you read several times and you think more deeply about it. That would be a great accomplishment, a great step forward for most of us in how we read and study the Bible. It is to just slow down and take the time to see what’s there.
IV. How to observe the backbone over against support material
What I want to talk to you about is how to observe the backbone of a passage over against what I call support material. There are two main parts of any passage. There is the basic central idea, and then the support material that helps us understand more about those basic ideas in the passage. If you remember from English grammar – and don’t anybody shudder out there – you have main clauses and then you have subordinate clauses. You have clauses that help the main clauses accomplish what they’re wanting to do.
So we want to talk about backbone material over against support material.
A. The backbone
The reason why we call this “backbone” is if you think about a person’s backbone or if you have seen the skeleton of an animal, that backbone runs down the body and is the central matrix around which everything else coheres. That’s the central thing in the body. So that’s what we mean by backbone.
1. Main verbs
In terms of observing the backbone of material, there are two things we want to do. The first thing is we want to identify the main verbs or verbal ideas. These are the actors of any language. They give the action to the language. Now these are going, as I said, to be over against support material. But let me just say that there are verbs found in support material. But in determining the backbone we want to determine the central verbs that go through the passage to get the line of the author’s thought as you run through the passage. Again in some subordinate clauses there are going to be verbs as well, but we’re going to talk about how to identify those things that are support material in just a minute.
Now the other thing that is central to seeing how the whole passage fits together are connectors. These main verbal ideas are going to be connected in some way because when I write out a paragraph or when the author of a passage in the Bible was writing out a section of that book, the author had a stream of thought going normally and he’s going to build it around key ideas, but then those ideas are going to be connected so that like a thread you have something running through that holds it together and you have a sense that this is a coherent thought. This sticks together this passage.
Now there are several kinds of connectors. Let me give you a little statement to write down here, and then we’re going to look at the different kinds of connections that hold this very brief passage together. John ate pie – Pat baked a blueberry pie this week so I was thinking about pie when I wrote this. John ate pie, which was very good, and Sally said “You are going to get fat, if you eat a pie tonight, tomorrow, and Wednesday.”
Now think about the ways that a passage is held together. Did everybody get all of that? Do I need to say it one more time? Okay. I think we’re all together there. Let me give you three basic ways that passages are held together. First of all, there are words called ''conjunctions'' that hold parts of the passage together. What are some examples of conjunctions? “And”, “but”, “or”. There are lots of different conjunctions that hold the main parts of a sentence together. These are little connecting words. Now look at the example that you have there. What are the conjunctions that are used in this passage? “And”. Go ahead and circle the conjunctions that are used in the passage.
Now let me say that you have two and’s here. Which of those and’s is more important because it connects bigger movements in the sentence? The first one. That’s right. That second "and" is just connecting a series of words. The first one is connecting two main thoughts, that John ate pie and Sally made a response.
Now the second thing that at times holds a passage together are ''patterns of words'' that serve like threads for the passage. These might be repeated words or lists, or a series. What are repeated words? Look back at that little passage again. What are words that are repeated that hold the parts of the passage together? There are a couple there that are related. “Pie” is a word that is repeated in the first half and the second half of the passage. And there’s another word that is related to it. They’re not the exact word. You have “eat” and “ate”. So you have a pattern of words that help tie the passage together.
There’s a third type of connector and that is ''logic relationships''. These are things like contrast, comparison, cause and effect, progression. Now what is the relationship here that’s a logic relationship between John ate the pie and Sally said, “You’re going to get fat.” Now there are different ways of describing – there are more details we could get at here, but I left this kind of simple with just a few options, but what would that be? What’s the logical relationship between the fact that John ate the pie and then she said this? It’s a cause and effect. Another way we can describe it is it’s a response. That he had an action and she responded, but for just a moment let’s think of this in terms of cause and effect. That’s a logical relationship that is built into the passage.
Now when we look at Scripture, we’re going to see these same connectors. We’re going to see conjunctions. We’re going to see patterns of words where things are repeated. We’re going to see logic relationships where you have contrast or cause and effect and that kind of thing. And those are the things that are going to hold the main parts of the passage together.
B. Support material
Now when we’re observing backbone, what we want to do is to identify the main verbal ideas and make them distinct from support material. Now let me give you some clues to what is support material in a passage. How do you observe support material? What do you know is support over against the main stuff?
Well, ''prepositions'' like “in” and “to” and “by” are normally going to introduce prepositional phrases that support by describing something or giving us more information.
''Pronouns'' can be used as support material. Pronouns are used to make reference to someone so that we’re not saying that thing over and over again. Instead of saying, “Joshua went outside and Joshua weed-eated yesterday and Joshua worked for five hours and Joshua” – you know, what we do in language is we say, “Joshua worked yesterday. He went outside and weed-eated and he worked for five hours.” We’re using the pronoun “he” there so that we don’t have to repeat the main thing we’re referring to over and over and over again. So sometimes pronouns can be used as support.
Here’s a key kind of support pronoun and that is a ''relative pronoun''. “Who” or “which” would be relative pronouns. How do relative pronouns function? A lot of times a relative pronoun in the Scripture will introduce a section that will actually have a verb in it. We’re going to see in just a minute. But it’s support material because it’s giving us further description. “The man who went to town ate fish.” The main thought there is the man ate fish. Who went to town is support material because it’s giving us more of a description of the man. All right. So if you see a who, which, etc., those are going to normally tip us off that we’re dealing with support material.
Another type of support would be ''adjectives.'' An adjective is a word that tells us more about a noun. An ''adverb'' is a word that tells us more about a verbal idea. So she sang beautifully - “beautifully” would be an adverb. He hit the red ball - “red” is an adjective in that case.
C. Example: Psalm 1
I want us to turn to the Scripture itself and look at Psalms chapter 1. Read the passage very carefully four times, and I want you to put a box around what you think the main verbal ideas are. This isn’t an easy passage; it has some complexity to it. But I want you to try to put a box around the main verbal ideas and let the support material sit by itself. Put a circle around the main conjunctions. Look back up at the list that we just used to talk about the way that passages are held together. If there are patterns of words or repeated words, mark those, maybe draw a line from one repeated word to another. If there is a list or a series of things, mark that and draw a line out to the side and say this is a series. If there is contrast or cause and effect, then mark that.
So what I’m asking you to do is primarily mark the main verbal ideas, put a circle around the main conjunctions, and then out in the margins, if you will, try to think through. Take one of these at a time. Read through the passage and look for repeated words. Are there words that are repeated here? Look for contrast or comparison or cause and effect and kind of read through it that way. Look at it and see if you can tell how the support material is supporting. So I want you to jot those things out in the margin of your little handout that you have there. The key here is not to get this perfectly correct. This is not an English test that we’re going to turn in and get graded on. The thing is to look at the text more closely. And if you come to the end, even if you mark some things that you think are the main idea that wind up being more support material, that’s okay if in the process you’re looking at the text more closely and learning things about the text by observing it closely. And then as we go along, we’ll unwind this a bit and talk about it some more. So I want you to take a minute and read through this about four times, cycle it through those different parts of observation and looking for repeated words and lists and logic relationships and things like that. And then let’s see if we can come back and see what we came up with.
Let’s see if we can talk through this a little bit. And what I want to do is walk through the passage together. The reason why I use this passage is there are a couple of things that are tricky about this. One of the things that is a little bit tricky is when you have verbs of being, like “is” and “are.” And also sometimes those logic relationships can trip you up.
The passage begins with “How blessed is the man.” You can turn that around and say “The man is blessed.” This is a central idea. Now how do you know that when the author goes into “who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked nor stand in the path of sinners nor sit in the seat of scoffers,” how do you know that that is support material? Because you’ve got those relative pronouns that we saw a minute ago. All right. So we’re going to identify those as support material. These support the idea of who this man is in the first line.
Now when you’re doing Bible study, there are a couple of different ways that you can go about doing this. If you have a study Bible and you’re comfortable with marking it up, then one thing you can do is go through and use a key, like putting a box as we did around the main verbal ideas, and then have another way of marking support material. Another way to do this if you have a computer is to cut and paste. What I do a lot of times is I will cut and paste passages into my word processor and rearrange the material so that I can line it out so I can see it much more clearly. Or if you’re a person who likes just writing things out, you might do this on your study sheet where you say, okay, here are the main ideas that run through the passage and then these parts over here are support material. And what I normally do is put the main idea over to the left and then support material I indent it under that main idea. Does that make sense?
What else can you tell me about these three relative clauses that we have here? “Who does not walk,” “who does not stand,” “he does not sit.” What else do you see? What kind of thing is tying that together there? It's cause and effect. In what way? He does not do these things and therefore he’s blessed, so you have a cause and effect relationship between this list and being blessed. What’s the nature of this list though? What connects the idea of walking, standing and sitting? Well, you could describe it as a progression of the ideas. The imagery here is this person is walking in the counsel of the wicked, he stands in the path of sinners and then sits in the seat of scoffers. The way you could look at this is he’s getting more and more comfortable and settling in, if you will, to being around ungodly people. You see the progression in the passage? So it’s an idea of walking, standing and then sitting. So that’s a logical relationship in this passage.
What’s the next word in the passage? “But.” What does that word show? It shows contrast with the next part of the passage. From an English grammar standpoint, when it says, “But his delight is in the law of the Lord and in his law he meditates day and night,” are those main clause ideas or are they support material? Well, they’re main clause ideas. But what we’re going to do is we’re going to keep them for the moment under the support material. Why would we do that? Because of what's being contrasted here. “His delight is in the law of the Lord” and the fact that he mediates day and night in it, is that contrasted primarily with the man being blessed? No, it’s contrasted with what? The description of the ungodly person. So he does not do this, he does not do this, he does not do this, but his delight is in the law of the Lord. It's being contrasted with the wicked association there that's described negatively in the first part of the passage. So we're going to keep this over here under the support material because as you're thinking through the logic of the passage, it contrasts with the support material that was just before it. Does that make sense? So, thus far what we have is the main idea is that this man is blessed. He's blessed because he does not do these negative things and he does do the very positive thing of delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating in it day and night.
One thing that we find in the Psalms especially is parallelism, and that's what this "and" does. It shows a parallel relationship. These are basically the same ideas expressed in different ways. You could read this as a progression or cause and effect kind of idea that he has delight in it and therefore he meditates in it. Okay? But still it's a form of parallelisms to drive home the thought poetically.
Now what is the next line that we have here in verse 3? What's the next main thought? "He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water." Now this is a second main thought so we're going to put it over to the left. Notice that both of the main thoughts so far have to do with being. He "is" blessed and he "will be" like a tree that is firmly planted. You also have a relationship between his delight and meditation and this main thought of he will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water. What is that relationship? Again, it's a cause and effect kind of relationship. The fact that he delights in the law of the Lord, it's going to result in the fact that he will be like a tree that is firmly planted.
Let's look on through the passage very quickly and then we'll look at a couple of other things. You're going to have a description of the tree now. Remember back up under the first main idea we had the man is blessed and you had a description of the man. Now you have a second main idea. He will be like a tree and you're going to have a description of the tree "which yields its fruit in its season" and "its leaf does not wither" and "whatever he does he prospers." Three descriptions of the tree there. So the two main ideas that we have so far is the man is blessed and he will be like a tree that prospers. And then the rest is support material. It's telling us more about the man being blessed.
Now as you move to the next idea, you have the wicked are not so but they are like chaff which the wind drives away. What would that be, compared to the first half of the passage? You have the man being blessed and him being like a tree, and then the passage says the wicked are not this way, but they are like chaff which the wind drives away. You have a contrast there in terms of the types of comparisons that are going on. And you do have comparisons built in to the passage. When it says "he will be like a tree," that's a type of comparison. It's a figure of speech actually, but we won't talk about it right now so as not to confuse things more. But in terms of big picture patterns, you have "the wicked are not so," another verb of being. And then it ends with "therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment nor sinners of the righteous." What is the relationship between "the wicked are not so" and "therefore the wicked will not stand"? What is the "therefore" there for? What is it showing? It's another cause and effect kind of relationship. Basically because these people are wicked, ultimately they will not be able to stand before God.
I know this is a complex passage and we’re kind of struggling with it as we go through, but when you boil it down to these four main ideas, notice what you have. The man is blessed, the man who lives in the law of the Lord. What is the result or the effect of his state of life? It's that he will be like a tree. He will be a man who is prosperous. The second half of the passage contrasts with that, that the wicked are not this way. In other words, the wicked person is not blessed. They’re like the chaff that’s driven by the wind and what is the result of their state of existence? They will not stand in the judgment before God.
Those are the four main thoughts as you walk your way through the passage and everything else supports those main thoughts. And you can even boil it down to two main ideas that it’s good to be a blessed person and it’s bad to be a person who’s not walking in the ways of the Lord. It’s good to be a person who’s walking in God’s ways. It’s bad to be someone who’s not doing that. I intentionally gave you a difficult passage. It was not to discourage you or to confuse you. For next week's assignment, I’m going to give you a passage that is much simpler structurally. But I wanted you to see some of these different kinds of relationships. And here’s the thing: If you get to the end of really grappling with this, even for 10 or 15 minutes as we did, you begin to see things in this passage that you hadn't seen before. In fact, here’s a cool thing. “Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment.” Where have we seen the word “stand” before? Right back up at the beginning of the passage. So you have this repeated idea that in essence says, look, if you are standing with sinners, you’re not going to be able to stand before God one day. So if we start seeing things like that in the passage that we haven’t seen before, then that’s a cool thing. We’re suddenly seeing details of the text that really start sticking out to us.
So, as we start doing observation, do not get bogged down and say, well, I’m not getting all the main clauses right and all this kind of stuff. Now some of you may have personalities that make you want to have all the blanks filled in perfectly. But what I want you to see is that if you just read the text more closely, you’re going to see things there in dynamics and descriptions that you haven’t seen before. And that’s the main goal I want us to have right now. Not to do a perfect grammatical analysis but to see the passage more clearly.
V. Observation: Other things to consider
We’re going to talk about narrative material next week, but let me give you a couple more things to consider in terms of observation.
A. Figures of speech
Especially when dealing with poetry, we’re going to run into figures of speech. We’re going to see metaphors and similes. Those are both comparisons. A simile is a comparison using “like” or “as." A metaphor is a comparison not using like or as, for example, “he’s a door,” “he’s a rock.” What you’re saying is not that he is morphed into a rock, but that he has characteristics that are analogous to a rock. Those are figures of speech. They make language beautiful, very descriptive. In the Psalms you’re going to see comparisons as we saw here: “He will be like a tree.” There will be things about this person's life that are analogous to a tree that’s by a stream of water that is really thriving. It’s a word picture, a figure of speech.
You’re going to have anthropomorphism. It’s a big word that just means that you’re going to have human body parts (or human activities or human experience) used to describe God. For instance, “God’s right hand of power.” Well, we know that God is spirit, God is not a physical body like we are, but at times we use human language to help us understand things about God. Again, that’s figurative language.
A second thing that we saw in this passage is parallelism. The Psalms at times will make a statement and then they’ll repeat the statement in a different way to drive home the point. Sometimes you’re going to have a synonymous parallelism which means he’s going to in essence say the same thing twice but say it a little bit differently. You’re going to have parallelism in which contrast is built in. You’re going to have various kinds of parallelism.
C. Key emotions
A third thing in poetry we want to look for is we want to look for key emotions. What would you say is the central emotion of Psalm 1? This guy is blessed. Boy, I mean life is good. And we want to tune into that. It’s not meant to just be analyzed. “Well, okay, the guy is blessed. Let’s look up the definition of blessed. Okay, this is a blessed person is a happy person who has well-being in life.” That’s not it. We’re to enter in to say, man, life is good for a person who’s walking in the ways of the Lord. Now it may not be a jump-up-and-down smile-all-the-time happy kind of good, but it means that there’s a wholeness of life there. So that’s something we want to look for in poetic material.
We’re going to talk next time about narrative material. Now don’t freak out by this list that I have here. You know why? Because you’ve been listening to stories all of your life and you know how stories work intuitively.
Let me just give you an example of this in closing and then I’m going to give you an assignment to do for next week.
One of the things that I grieve – I love this period in my children’s lives - is that we kind of moved out of the stage of little children’s books. And I loved children’s books. I used to read “Moo Moo Peek-A-Boo” over and over again to our kids. “Moo Moo Peek-A-Boo, we see you, cow. What else do we see? A sow and her piglet, hungry as can be. Nay-nay, what do we say is peering around that door? A mare and her colt are grazing on sweet tender clover.” Or something like that. I used to know the whole thing by heart. Why? Because I went over and over and over again. If you think about a story, even a very simple story like that, there are things that move the story along. That story is moved along by different animals being introduced to the story, different characters being brought in.
If you go see Spiderman, if you go see Lord of the Rings or something like that at the movie, you kind of know those elements. You have good guys and bad guys. You have crises that come in. In fact, when Anna was younger and we’d be watching a movie and things would start getting scary, we would say, “It’s okay. This is the crisis part. It’s going to be okay.” That’s just the way that stories work. So what we want to do in the Bible stories as well, the narrative literature, is we want to learn to look for key aspects of the story. What is the setting, the time, the place? The social setting just means the people who are involved in this. Character entrance, reactions, response, conflict, suspense.
Now here’s what I want you to do. We’re going to talk more in detail about all this next week but here’s what I want you to do. I want you to do three things. I want you to go back and take a look at Psalms 73 as I assigned to you last week.
Secondly, I want you to take Acts 1:8 and do a basic observation on Acts 1:8. Like we did with Psalm 1, where you go back and you’re looking for these different dynamics in the passage, repetition, cause and effect, what’s the main idea. It won’t take you that long but I want to encourage you to really spend some time with it and keep digging and see all that you can drag up from looking at Acts 1:8.
And the third thing I want you to do is to take this passage from Mark 5, and I want you to go down the left-hand margin and I want you to read the story and just see if you can give some of these labels that I’ve listed under narrative here out in that left-hand margin. If there is a character entrance or a description of a character, then write that. Write down to the left where there is time, place, or social setting. Social setting again are the people who are involved in the backdrop of this passage. So just give that a try and that will give us a beginning to come back and talk about interpreting narrative next week. And then we’re going to go into word studies. We’re going to look at how do you do good word studies and what are some things we need to be careful not to do in word studies that can get us in trouble.
Thank you so much for your faithfulness in being here for the class. I just want to encourage you. Don’t get discouraged if some of this stuff seems a little bit jumbled on observation right now. The main thing I’m trying to get you to do is just to look at the text more closely and gave you some things that might prod you to do that.