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31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible Archives - Come and Break Bread

How to Do a Character Study :: 31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible Day 20

 

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I love doing character studies. Some of the most valuable and personal life lessons I’ve learned came as I read the Word and studied closely, meditating on the lives of Jesus, John, Moses, Joseph, and Jeremiah (to name my personal favorites). Studying Jeremiah’s life taught me that success is not defined by results, outcomes, numbers, people’s approval, and all the outward things the world uses to measure success. Success in God’s eyes is simply when we live in obedience to Him, and many times that might actually mean disapproval from the world around us or not seeing any tangible, immediate, or favorable results. From John I learned that I am Christ’s Beloved. Not because of what I do or don’t do, not because of my own faithfulness or lack there of. He loves me simply because it is in His nature to love me, I’m His favorite… and you are too. John helped me place my identity in being the “Beloved” alone. By meditating on Jesus’ life I came to know and relate to Him more intimately as I realized that He identifies with all of my hurts and struggles in life. I learned that I am called first and foremost to BE with him, that ministry flows out of being rooted in God’s acceptance and love— it is never meant to be done for acceptance or love. I’ve learned that I am to lay aside my own agenda to serve others and to listen for what the Father is saying and doing and to be about that instead of my own plans. To walk and live, to parent, pray, and serve, as the Spirit leads. I’ve learned that I am to give others the benefit of the doubt and call out who they really are— as God sees them— instead of focusing on their shortcomings. I’ve learned that my role in life is simply to pour myself out for the benefit of and to build up others. From Moses I learned what a selfless leader looks like… willing to pour oneself out in prayer, identifying with and caring for the people in your care so much that you’re willing to die in their place.  I learn from Moses that we are not to use opportunities or authority to make ourselves more powerful or to lord it over/dominate others. A good leader is a humble leader who cares more about others than him/herself. I found comfort as I studied Joseph. Life was not fair to him but he never complained and always trusted that God was working and sovereign and good… in the midst of so much uncertainty and wrong that had been done to him.

All these things I’ve learned and I so ask and depend on God daily… that He would work in me and enable me to live out these truths.

Character studies can be powerful.

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When doing a character study, we zoom in on a particular person, and piece together a more complete picture of who they were, why they made certain choices, what their consequences were, and what we can learn from their lives.

Here are some ideas for how to do a character study:

  • First, you’ll want to find all of the passages and verses where the character is found. You can either do this as you’re reading through a book— (if you do it this way it might be helpful to have a special color-code to mark wherever the person is mentioned), or you can use a concordance to get a list of all the places the person is found (just look up their name in a concordance and it will have the list).
  • Read all of the verses.
  • Write down what you know about them (based on the verses you read):  where they were from, when they lived, what their name meant, what you know about their family, culture, country, or any other contextual information.
  • Look them up in a Bible dictionary to help fill in any missing pieces about their background.
  • Go back through and read all of the passages where the character is found. Make any observations (use the list in the observation post), and also look for any of the following additional things (you can come up with a color code for each of these to help you track them). (Remember, observing is simply noticing what is stated in the text.)
    • Any information about their calling
    • What they do/don’t do
    • What happens to them
    • How do they respond or what choices do they make
    • What results from their choices and actions
    • Their attitude towards people
    • Their attitude towards God
    • What do others say about them
    • Observe their spiritual life:
      • What is their prayer life like?
      • Obedience or disobedience to God?
      • Their attitude toward Scripture/God’s word?
      • What kinds of tests does the character face (physical conflict, relational conflict, moral test/conflict, mental conflict (inner struggle), test of faith/trust in God?
      • What kind of transformation takes place in their life? How does it happen?
  • Write down these observations as you read, and next to each observation move into interpretation. Remember, interpretation is where you ask questions like:  Why is this significant? What does this reveal about God? What does this reveal about the character being studied? Why/how did this happen? What is implied?
  • Meditate on your observations and interpretations. Keep asking questions and thinking through the stories of the character’s life from different angles.
  • The goal of bible study is always application: what did you learn from studying their life that you can apply to your life? What is God saying to you/showing you? What are the timeless truths?

Here is an example of what part of a character study might look like. To do a complete character study you’d do this with all of your passages:

Passage: Ruth 1:19-21

Context: Takes place during the days of the Judges (dark days in Israel’s history). Naomi and Ruth have just returned to Bethlehem after the death of their husbands.

Observations and interpretations:

  • Observation: There is a Question/Answer in verses 19-20.
    • Who is asking the question? “The women of Bethlehem” (verse 19).
    • Naomi’s answer: “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara” (verse 20).
  • Observation: There is a Connective in verse 20, the word “for”.
    • What is being connected? Naomi’s new name “Mara” with the Almighty dealing bitterly with her (verse 20).
  • Interpretation: Why is Naomi changing her name? Because she is changing her identity. No longer do any of the things that formerly made her identity exist.
  • Interpretation: What is significant about Naomi expressing her anger against God? Because everything that Naomi and her husband did— moving to Moab, giving their sons to Moabite wives— was against God’s orders (it was sin against him), so the consequences were brought on themselves.
  • What does this all reveal about Naomi? She didn’t understand the character of God.
  • Interpretation: Why doesn’t the author change her name in the rest of the book? Perhaps because in the end, Naomi is redeemed so there is no need because she is no longer bitter.

Summary: Naomi is bitter about how her life turned out and doesn’t recognize that her disobedience affected her life and situation. She wants to change her name and thus change her identity. God redeems the situation in the end.

Application points:

  • Our choices have consequences— for good or bad. It is always in our best interest to obey God.
  • Even when we make mistakes or when circumstances are hard, God is at work in our lives. We can choose to worship and trust him or choose to be bitter and angry. Either way, he is good and is about working out redemption.

 

Hope that helps! If you decide to do a character study I’d love to hear who you are studying and what God teaches you along the way. Or if you’ve done one before, I’d love to hear what you learned.

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The Steps of Inductive Bible Study— Step 3: Application (31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible Day 19)

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In previous posts I have defined Inductive Bible Study, and talked about the first two steps — observation and interpretation. The 3rd and final step, and the reason we study the Bible, is application. Application is the “so what” of Bible study. After observing and interpreting, we ask ourselves (with the Spirit prompting us): so what am I going to do as a result of what I have learned? It is here that we move knowledge and what we’ve studied from our heads to our hearts and act upon it. As we immerse ourselves in Scripture, we develop within ourselves the mind and heart of God. We want to be able to think and to respond to every situation the way God himself would. Application IS  both theoretical and practical— and how we live (the practical) will flow out of what we believe (the theoretical).

The heart, then, behind this series is not simply to pass on knowledge, though loving God with our minds is something we are commanded to do. We study the Bible to come to know God better, hear his voice, and to be transformed in thinking and deeds as He works in our lives. James 1:22-25 says “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.” Application is looking into the mirror of Scripture and walking away a changed person. This change occurs supernaturally as we come to know God— as we choose to conform our lives to obedience to Him, through the out working of the Spirit in our lives.

So how do we make the jump from the original audience (2000+ years ago) to today? First, we need to understand the original situation. This is uncovered through the first two steps of observation and interpretation and as you work through the BRI (Basic Required Information). These are some summarizing tips/ideas to keep in mind as we move into application:

  • God’s Word is Timely. God spoke to specific situations, problems, and questions. Throughout Scripture, God becomes personally involved in people’s lives, speaking directly to their needs in ways that are appropriate to their situations. This is good because we are given examples which are concrete rather than abstract. However, the concrete nature of Scripture can create a problem: our situations, problems, and questions are not always directly related to those of the Bible. Therefore, God’s Word to the Original Audience does not always seem immediately relevant to us.
  • Timely, Yet Timeless. Just as God spoke to the Original Audience, so He still speaks to us throughout the pages of Scripture. Because we share a common humanity with the people of the Bible, we discover a universal dimension in the problems they faced and the solutions God gave them. When, on the surface, a passage seems to have little application to our situation today, we need to look beneath the surface for a general principle.
  • We Need to Become Time Travelers: Crossing the Barriers.
    • Crossing the Time Barrier. We often lack important information regarding the historical context into which the events of the Bible took place. Unless we understand this, we might hear what the author is saying, but we don’t know why he is saying it.
    •  Crossing the Cultural Barrier. The events of the Bible took place in many different cultures: Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman (to name a few). It is not uncommon, therefore, to read about customs or beliefs that seem strange to us since they are so far removed from our own culture today.
    • Crossing the Geographical Barrier. As we learn about Biblical geography, many Bible passages take on new meaning. We can become familiar with biblical geography by utilizing maps printed in our Bibles, Bible atlases, and Bible dictionaries.
    • Crossing the Reading Barrier. One aspect of learning how to study the Bible is to develop our reading skills— the kind of skills that will help us whether we are reading the Bible, a novel, newspaper, or magazine. Some guidelines: identify the type of literature, get an overview of the book, study it passage by passage, and be sensitive to the mood of the book.

As we begin to move into the application step, we find that some passages directly and specifically state principles and timeless truths we are to live by (like the 10 commandments), while other passages seem to have little application to us today. In the latter case, we need to look beneath the surface for a general principle. For example, Romans 16:16 says “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” A kiss was a typical and culturally appropriate way in which Christians of that time and place would greet each other (this is the type of information you might uncover as you work through the first two steps of inductive Bible study— observation and interpretation, as well as the BRI). This command had specific cultural application for the original audience but it may seem irrelevant to us today. Yet the timeless truth beneath the surface, and the general principle that Paul is communicating, is that believers are to greet each other warmly, in a way that demonstrates brotherly love. So a cultural statement is an expression that can be understood only within a certain cultural context and/or period of time, like the above command in Romans. A timeless truth is one of God’s principles that stands true regardless of differing times and cultures— like the 10 commandments or the general principle in Romans 16:16— to greet other believers in love.

Here are some guidelines for finding timeless truths:

Old Testament Commands

Right or wrong, many often assume that some OT commandments no longer apply to us, while on the other hand, we feel certain that others are valid for today. To properly determine which are valid we need to understand some basic facts about the OT:

  1. The OT contains over 600 different commands (mostly in the Pentateuch).
  2. The OT is the record of God’s covenant with Israel.

Guidelines for Applying OT commands:

    1. Is the command restated in the NT?
    2. Is the command revoked in the NT?
    3. What is the principle behind the OT command?

Although we are no longer under the Old Covenant, we need to remember that the laws of the Old Covenant reflect God’s character. Therefore, the principles behind these laws should still be valid, even though some specific expressions of the laws may be obsolete.

New Testament Commands

Much of the teaching of the NT can be applied directly to us today, but sometimes a biblical teaching is directed so specifically to the culture of the ancient world, that another culture cannot understand it. So, as I mentioned above, we need to evaluate whether specific statements are cultural and temporary, or timeless— spanning across all ages. We should understand that every cultural expression in the Bible is a result of some timeless principle. And even though a cultural expression cannot be carried over directly to another culture, the timeless truth behind it can. Just because it is cultural does not mean it can be ignored.

Applying Biblical Examples

There are many excellent examples in the Bible. The difficulty, however, is knowing which examples we are to follow and which we should avoid. The method used for applying a biblical example will depend on what kind of information the author gives us about the example. We will come across:

  • Explicit Examples: In which the biblical author tells us explicitly whether a person or group is a good or bad example.
  • Implicit Examples: In which there are no explicit statements about whether the actions of the example are right or wrong, but the author gives implicit approval or disapproval of what is done. In order to evaluate this, we need a basic knowledge of Scripture so that we can interpret it based on principles taught elsewhere in Scripture. As I mentioned in my post on Historical Narratives, such books often simply state what happened— not intending to imply that we should follow their examples.

Applying Biblical Promises

Because we are no longer under the Old Covenant, we cannot assume that promises of that covenant directly apply to us. Such promises are usually associated with the blessings God promised the people of Israel if they obeyed His law. Before applying a promise, we must identify the person or group to whom the promise was originally given. Most prophetic books were written directly to Israel and Judah. We cannot ignore the original audience and historical context of these books without serious danger of misapplying what we read.

Categories of Promises Directly Intended for Us

    1. Promises that are universal in scope.
    2. Promises given to the church.
    3. Promises given to other groups to which we belong.

Conditional or Unconditional

Once we conclude that a promise applies to us, we must also ask whether the fulfillment is dependent in any way on our actions or attitudes.

Promises vs. Principles

A principle is not the same as a promise. A principle is usually based on who God is— and God never changes. But a promise is based on what God has said He would or would not do. Both the conditions and the recipients of His promise have sometimes changed greatly from the Old to the New Covenant.

Promises vs. Proverbs

In spite of appearance, most proverbs are not promises. They are wise sayings or principles that are generally true of life. Those who follow the advice given in Proverbs will have wisdom for dealing with the practical areas of life.

Finally, here are specific application questions we can ask ourselves as we are considering our observations and interpretations:

  • What are the timeless truths in this book or passage?
  • What am I to believe? Do I need to change anything I have previously believed?
  • In view of these truths, what changes should I make in my life? Are there attitudes or actions that I need to change?
  • How does this truth encourage me?
  • What do I see about the character of God? How does this aspect of God’s character speak or minister to me?
  • What specific steps or actions can I take to carry this application out?

Here is a second list— of broader application questions:

  • What effect could this truth have on the world of business?
  • How would this truth affect the way my church should function?
  • What difference should this truth make to the way we approach education?
  • What difference should this truth make for family life?
  • How does this truth affect the Christian’s relationship with the government?
  • What would this truth mean for the worship life of my church?
  • How should this truth affect the attitude we have for the lost or our approach to missions or other religions?
  • Does this understanding help me deal with any of the complex issues of medical ethics?
  • How does this insight affect the way we look at the future?
  • What can I learn from this about the Christian’s responsibility in the area of social justice, to the poor, homeless, handicapped, refugees, etc?
  • What can I learn about the Christian’s perspective of entertainment?

You can download and print the above questions here.

In upcoming posts I will cover some of the remaining types of literature: parables, epistles, gospels, apocalyptic literature and understanding Revelation, as well as how to do a character study, word study, and more.

Thanks for following along. As you dig into the Word, may you come to know Him more intimately, may you hear Him speak to you, and may the Spirit work in your heart to make you more like Him!

The Steps of Inductive Bible Study— Step 2: Interpretation (31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible Day 18)

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Friends,

I want to apologize for neglecting this space and series for so long! When my life gets crazy, busy, or full this blog is the first thing that gets neglected. I was actually sick for several weeks at the end of the summer. I had all of the symptoms of West Nile except the rash and ended up getting tested for that, among other things. It all came back negative except that my white blood count was off so I was definitely fighting something at the time. At the end of my sickness I ended up running a couple of races that I had trained all summer for, and we are now a couple of months into our home-school year, though I feel like we are still settling in. Anyway, I’ve been feeling convicted that the “31 Days” series title is probably misleading (which was obviously never my intent) and instead should be something like “31 weeks” or just “31 posts”.  So I’m sorry friends, but I’m hoping to push through these last posts more quickly to finish out the series. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Here we go…

Post 16 talked about the first step of inductive Bible study: observation. The second step of inductive Bible study is interpretation.

So what is interpretation? Interpretation is determining what the book or passage meant when it was first written. (That is why the BRI I shared in the last post is a useful tool— we need to figure out things like who the author and/or audience was if we want to understand why a particular book was written.) Interpretation involves understanding the author’s viewpoint, as well as the viewpoint of his audience.

Interpretation BUILDS on the foundation of observation, and thorough observation results in better interpretation. While observation focuses on “what does the text say?”, interpretation builds on that and asks “why is this said?” The bridge between observation and interpretation is the question “why?”

In inductive Bible study, interpretation is NOT what it means to the 21st century reader (that is the last step of inductive Bible study— application). “The reason you must not begin with the here and now is that the only proper control for hermeneutics (the interpretation of Biblical texts) is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text…. Otherwise biblical texts can be made to mean whatever they mean to any given reader. But such hermeneutics becomes total subjectivity, and who then is to say that one person’s interpretation is right and another’s is wrong? Anything goes. In contrast to such subjectivity, we insist that the original meaning of the text— as much as it is in our power to discern it— is the objective point of control.” (from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth).

With interpretation we need to consider:

  • The author.
  • Original reader— the people to whom the book was written. (For example, the book of Matthew was written to Jews, Mark was written to persecuted Christians in Rome, Luke was written to Gentiles, and John was written to Greeks.)
  • Original hearer— the people who were present when the actual events took place and heard the words that were spoken. (For example— the people who heard Jesus teach). There will not be an Original Hearer for each book.
  • Historical and cultural background. What is the situation of the reader/hearer? What events took place that are relevant to the reader’s situation (for example, persecution). What political/geographical/cultural factors need to be considered?
  • Literary context.

Here is a list of interpretation questions. (If you want to print these out click here.) You can use these questions in an overview fashion to the whole book or to specific passages or sections. You can also develop your own questions that are more specific to your passage. The key to interpretation is this: get curious!

  1. What are the author’s concerns, convictions, and emotions? Put yourself in the shoes of the author. Think of questions to ask that help identify why he is writing as he does.
  2. What are the original reader’s/hearer’s concerns, questions, struggles, problems, emotions, strengths, and weaknesses? Put yourself in the shoes of the original reader. Think of questions to ask that help identify what the original reader or hearer may be feeling or experiencing.
  3. Ask what is implied? For example, if you’re reading one of Paul’s letters, look at what he is trying to address in his letter— like in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul teaches on and defines love. This implies that the original readers didn’t know what it looked like to love one another (which reinforces what Paul had stated earlier in 1:10-11). This also shows us one of the reasons Paul was writing the letter.
  4. Ask meaning questions. What does this mean? Meaning to original reader/hearer? Meaning of figure of speech? Meaning of a word, term or concept? (This can be a good time to do a word study. I’ll do a separate post on that.)
  5. Bombard the text with why questions. Why is this said? Why was this Old Testament quote used? Why are these words repeated? Why was this significant? Why are these people mentioned? Why was this command given?

Some other questions/tips:

  • Does the author give his own interpretation? Does he interpret his use of symbols? Does he state why he wrote the book?
  • When the author quotes scripture, look up the quoted passages and observe their context. Why does he use this passage? Does it prove a point, illustrate a truth, support the author’s argument, or contribute to the emotion of the passage?
  • Take into account the type of literature and how it should be interpreted. Is it literal or figurative? Interpret accordingly.
  • Interpret the scripture in a simple fashion. Do not treat the scripture in a mystical fashion. Interpret the Word of God in a natural, normal sense as you would any other book. This means that you make allowances for different types of literature, figures of speech, and elements of composition (the style and structure of the writing).
  • Read the book or passage in a different translation to expand your observations and understanding.
  • It is very important to do thorough observation first. You must gather facts before making conclusions. Use material gained in observation to back up your interpretation. If you’re having difficulty with interpretation, go back and do more observations.
  • Consult Bible dictionaries, atlases, and historical background resource material for unanswered questions or more information.
  • Consult a commentary. Do this last. Use the commentary as a tool, not a crutch. Dialogue with the commentary. What did you learn from the commentary? Do you agree or disagree with the author’s conclusion?

Practically speaking, it might be helpful to get a notebook or journal that you use only for inductive Bible study. You can write down (and even color code to match your Bible) your observations and then follow that up with your interpretation questions. When I do this I switch between a few colors of pen. I write my observations in black, interpretation questions in blue, application (the 3rd step which I will cover soon), in purple. Using different colors helps me to easily see the steps and keep them distinct for easy reference.

I pray that your reading and studying is drawing you closer to Him! I love to hear from readers regarding what you are studying or learning— so do share!

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Basic Required Information (BRI) A Tool for Understanding a Book (31 Days to Understanding the Bible :: Day 17)

 

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In my Bible school, there was something we had to do before moving into the interpretation phase of our study, and that was to find out some basic required information (BRI). To fully observe a book (and then interpret and apply it), we need to know some essential facts such as: Who is writing the book? Who are they writing to? What circumstances led them to write this? When was it written? What was the historical background– the political, social, spiritual, cultural climate? And more. Knowing these things helps us to understand why the author wrote the book and how the original reader/hearer would have understood it. These details not only help us understand the context, they bring out spiritual truths that might otherwise be overlooked.

Here are some tips for discovering the historical background of a book:

    • Always start with internal evidence… within the book itself for information about the author, the audience, their culture, and their present situation. For example Titus 1:1 & 4 say “Paul… to Titus” so we know that Paul is the author and he is writing to Titus. Then in verse 5 he goes on to give instructions to Titus, which clues us in to why he is writing the letter.
    • Look at the cross-references in your Bible to see where names, places, or a similar situation is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (when reading NT letters it is especially helpful to cross reference the book of Acts) and/or Old Testament. If you do not have cross-references in your Bible, you can look them up online, or you can look up the names and places in a concordance. Investigate the audience’s culture, geographical location, and political situation.

(You can purchase Bibles with cross references in the margins– see the cross references in the right margin of my Bible below:)photo-44

    • If it is a New Testament letter, investigate the events of Paul’s visit(s) to that city or region and how it fits in to his ministry (conversion, missionary journeys, imprisonments, etc.) in order to discover where he was, what he was doing, and why he wrote the letter. Investigate Paul’s relationship with the audience. Also, if the book is an epistle (letter) to a specific church, investigate the church’s size, makeup, and length of existence.
    • If it is an Old Testament book, investigate what was happening in Israel’s history at that time.
    • If you’ve looked internally– within the Bible– and still don’t have all of the necessary facts, move to external sources to find the answers.
    • Use Bible handbooks or dictionaries to look up the specific book of the Bible.
    • Discover more about the audience’s culture, geography, and political situation by looking up their city or province in a Bible dictionary, Bible atlas, or Bible encyclopedia.
    • Discover more biographical information about people in the book by looking up their names in Bible dictionaries or encyclopedias.
    • Look up key words (ex. grace, justification) to further understand their meaning to the original readers in a Bible dictionary or Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.
    • Discover more information about the culture by looking up social structures or religious systems that are mentioned (for example Judaism or slavery) in a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia.
    • Look up illustrations and cultural information (such as circumcision, yeast, or crucifixion) in a Bible encyclopedia, Bible background commentary (these two are among my favorite resource books),  and Bible customs reference.

Here are printable BRI sheets you can download for your study:

NEW TESTAMENT BRI

OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE BRI

PROPHETS BRI

WISDOM LITERATURE BRI

 

In the next post, I’ll talk about the second step of inductive Bible study… interpretation. (Read about step 1 here.)

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The Steps of Inductive Bible Study— Step 1: Observation (31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible Day 16)

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Friends! I’m so sorry this post has been so long in coming! My computer broke over a month ago just as we were heading into my sister’s wedding, which was followed by a camping/road trip through our state, and then the start of our homeschool year. I got my computer back from the repair shop last week so I’m finally here ready to post. I still have more literature types to cover but because those posts take longer for me to write, I am going to mix things up a bit and start telling you about the steps of the inductive method before finishing up with some of the other types of literature found in the Bible.

To start, let’s briefly review an inductive vs. deductive approach (read the full post here):

In the inductive approach: Your conclusions evolve out of what you have observed, seeking to lay aside preconceived ideas. This approach seeks to let scripture speak for itself, and it studies the Scriptures in context.

In the deductive approach: One comes to the text with a thesis and then seeks out passages to support the thesis. One is dictating to the Scriptures rather than letting the Scriptures speak. One has already, to a certain extent, drawn conclusions before reading the whole text of Scripture in context.

The three steps of inductive Bible study are:

1. OBSERVATION: What does the text say?

2. INTERPRETATION (exegesis): What did the text mean when it was written? (Meaning to the original readers or hearers.)

3. APPLICATION (hermeneutics): How does the truth of this passage/book apply to the 21st century?

These steps need to be done in order. Observation is the foundation and should be done first, followed by interpretation and ending with application. Thorough observation leads to good interpretation and good interpretation leads into life changing application— which is one of the main goals of Bible study!… To know God and to be transformed by Him working in our life— which happens as we study the Word.

This post will explain the first step— observation. Observation is simply looking at what the text says. Observation is not determining what the text means but simply looking for the facts without interpreting them.

There are two parts of observation— noticing and examining. Reading through a text you notice things, for example that a word is repeated. Then you continue to examine that repeated word and ask further questions like “How often is this word repeated?”, “How is this word used?”, “In what context is it used?” Examining will help you to thoroughly observe and analyze the text.

Observation takes time. You have to look, then look some more, and look again. Reading a passage for the first time you will notice a few things. When you read it a second time you will see more. In order to do good observation you need to LOOK until looking becomes seeing.

Some aids/tips for observation (summarized from Methodical Bible Study by Robert Traina.)

  • Look both at the overall picture— observing the whole of a book, and in detail at the particulars of the book.
  • Try circling major observations— like a verse that seems to summarize the main idea of the book. (I will give you ideas of other things to observe and mark in your Bible, in a printable below.)
  • Discipline yourself to see how many different observations you can make on a given passage. Learn to spend hours in the process of observation. In my School of Biblical Studies, the staff would read a book up to 50 times during the observation phase— to really take in both the big picture and all of the details. They would spend hours, days, even weeks observing a book they were going to teach.
  • As you look at what IS in the text, think also about what “should” be found there but is not, or think about which words are not used versus what is said. “An observer will have his eyes open to notice anything which according to received theories ought not to happen, for these are the facts which serve as clues to new discoveries.” For example, Joseph’s gracious attitude toward his scheming brothers in Genesis 37-50 seems opposite of what one would expect. In Psalm 23 the Psalmist says “The Lord is MY shepherd, I shall not want.” He does not say the Lord is A Shepherd, I shall not want.”
  • Compare and contrast various passages or books (like Kings with Chronicles, parallel Gospel accounts found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.)
  • Compare and contrast different translations and their different choice of words.
  • Make rough maps of the geography you’re reading about— this can be really helpful in books like Acts as you read about Paul’s missionary journeys. This is how authors of Bible dictionaries and such piece together Paul’s missionary journies— by reading through Acts and Paul’s books and observing where he was when and with whom.
  • In observing biographical material, note the characteristics of the men involved, their concept of and attitude toward God, their actions, reactions, and motives. (This is the basis of doing a character study.)
  • Look for the concepts of God, Christ, man, sin, and redemption since these represent the primary themes of the Bible.
  • To summarize, observation calls for awareness and thoroughness. Be attentive to each term, and note carefully the relations and interrelations between terms. Observe what type of literature you are looking at (poetry? historical narrative? prophets? etc.), as well as the atmosphere or mood. Some books will have a combination of moods or there might be a change of mood which occurs throughout a book. Observe whether the passage can be characterized by despair, thanksgiving, awe, urgency, joy, humility, tenderness, etc.

It takes time to train your brain to really observe what is in a passage. Don’t stress about seeing everything at once. Try observing one thing, such as repeated words. When you feel like you’ve done a thorough job of that, read back through observing something else like contrasts. Pretty soon you’ll be able to observe many things in one reading.

How to record your observations: Use colored pencils to mark your observations in your Bible as you read through it. See mine below:

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If you look at the picture of my observations above, you’ll see that the repeated word “water” is colored in blue, the contrast (often made obvious by the word “but”) is marked with an orange X, a connective (so that) is noted with two green vertical lines surrounding it, a repeated phrase “water that I will give” is underlined in black, a key phrase “eternal life” is highlighted in pink, and so forth. You’ll want to come up with your own symbols and colors for your own study.

Here is a list of things you can look for/observe. You can print this out and come up with color coded symbols for each item. Use it as a key as you read through your Bible so you know what to look for and how to mark or color code it. Pretty soon you’ll have your color codes memorized so you’ll be able to recognize key observations that you’ve color coded in your Bible with a quick glance.

In the next post I will share one other tool that is helpful in the observation phase before moving on to the second step— interpretation.

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Understanding the Prophets Part 2 (31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible :: Day 15)

 

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In the Part 1 I talked a bit about who the prophets were. There were a few different ways in which the prophets delivered their messages:

  • Spoken messages. Sometimes the prophets spoke and gave descriptions of visions the Lord had given them. Other times, they spoke in a unique manner– they spoke in oracles. Oracles were arranged to specifically address the sins (law breaking) and consequences of each audience. (The laws and blessings and curses for keeping or breaking them were given to the people in Deuteronomy and Leviticus).  The 3 most common forms of oracles found in the prophets are:
    1. Lawsuit Oracles: God is portrayed as the plaintiff, prosecuting attorney and judge.

4 Main Parts to a Lawsuit Oracle:

1) Summons– The call to appear on trial before God, or God taking his place in the judge’s seat.

2) Charge– The accusation or indictment against the people.

3) Evidence– The proof (usually a list of sins).

4) Verdict– The judgement sentence.

Examples:          Is 1:2-8               Amos 2:4-5

Summons:          verse 2a               verse 4a

Charge:                2b-3                      4b

Evidence:             4-6                         4c

Verdict:                7-8                         5

2. Woe (Alas) Oracle: The Hebrew term for an announcement of distress.

3 Parts to a Woe Oracle: (and examples)

1) Announcement of Distress (Woe! or Alas!)   Is 30:1a          Amos 5:18a

2) Reason for Distress (list of sin)                        Is 30:1-2         Amos 5:18-26

3) Prediction of Doom                                              Is 30:3-5         Amos 5:27

3. Promise (Salvation or Hope) Oracle: Word of hope and promise– God’s blessings to come.

3 Parts to a Salvation Oracle

1) Future referred to: “In that day…”, “At that time…”

2) Radical change announced: a complete turnaround from the present situation.

3) Mention of blessing: Promise of restoration, peace, property, health, abundance (harvest, rebuilding, being planted).

Examples:                      Amos 9:11-15          Hosea 2:16-20

Future referred to          verse 11a                   verse 16a

Radical change               11b-12                        16b-17

Promise/blessing           13-15                          18-20

When the oracle doesn’t seem to fit any of the 3 types above, identify who it is against, look for/note sins (empty religious activity, social injustice, leadership problems– either civic or religious priests/false prophets), and any judgement and when it was possibly fulfilled. To help determine when judgement was fulfilled, look up city in question in Bible dictionaries and see when it was conquered/destroyed.

  • Enacted Symbols. Sometimes a prophet acted out his message symbolically. A few examples:
    • Isaiah went naked and barefoot for 3 years (see Isaiah 20).
    • Hosea married a prostitute– showing Israel her relationship with God was like that of an unfaithful wife to a faithful husband.
    • Ezekiel lay on his side for over a year and cooked his good over dung.

Purpose: These symbolic acts were designed to capture the attention of an audience whose hearts were hardened and who refused to listen to the prophet’s verbal messages. Symbols got more graphic as judgment approached. The people needed images to see God’s message because their hearts were hard and it took a lot to make an impact and get through to them.

  • Another way prophets communicated were through written messages– such as on a scroll.

The Language of the Prophets

  • Historical Judgement– When a prophet is speaking of a historical judgment that is coming, you will see words such as: Danger, death, defeat, deportation, destitution, destruction, disease, disgrace, drought.
  • Eschatological judgement (2nd coming)– When a prophet is speaking of the second coming, you will see words such as: anguish, darkness, distress, great day of the Lord/Great day of wrath, terror. Language that is: all-inclusive– all people, all the earth… cosmic, universal in scope, etc.
  • Physical Restoration (Judah only)– When a prophet is speaking of a physical/literal restoration that occurred for Judah, you will see words such as: Afterward (restore fortunes/land/etc.), compassion, deliverance, enemies put to shame, land– bring them again to land/heritage, remnant (will return), rescued, rest, restore, return, righteousness, justice.
  • Messianic language– When a prophet is speaking of the Messianic age (the time between Jesus’ first and second comings and beyond), you will see language such as: abundance/wealth/multitude, all people/nations– from Egypt, Assyria, aliens/foreigners, etc. (Gentiles or non-Jews), animals grazing together at peace (lamb/lion), blind– eyes opened/deaf hear/lame walk, brought home/gathered/return/restore, coastlands– east/west, covenant, ends of the earth, enemies defeated, ensign/sign, eternal/everlasting, feast, glory, highway (supernatural passage), holy mountain (mountain above all), increase/abundance of people entering/boundary extended, joy/rejoice/gladness/sorrow flee away, king/shepherd reigns, latter days/at that time/in that day, light– no more darkness/brought out of darkness, LORD dwelling in their midst, lowly, humble admitted, majestic, no more… [shame, unclean, curse, liars, false prophets, sorrow, tears, etc.], peace/no war, prisoners– open doors, set free, prosperity (material blessing), remnant, return, security/safety, sin dealt with, sing for joy, spirit– poured out, stone, water, Zion/Jerusalem.

The Test of a True Prophet

There were false prophets who “prophesied” at the same time as the true prophets, but God provided 3 criteria to determine a true prophet:

1) Theological test:  Was the prophet doctrinally sound? Deut 13:1-11

2) Practical test: Did the prophet’s words come to pass? Deut 18:20

3) Moral test: Was the prophet of godly character? Jer 23:9, 13-23

 

Some things that are helpful to remember when interpreting the Prophets:

  • Consider the historical situation. See Part 1 for an overview of the historical context. To summarize it, the world at the time of the prophets was a time of political and social upheaval. Israel and Judah were unfaithful to the Covenant, idolatry ran rampant throughout both kingdoms, and there was a general disregard for the Covenant. It was into these circumstances that God raised up the Prophets– to speak His Word into people’s lives.
  • Understand figurative language. Prophetic literature, like other Biblical poetry, is rich in figurative language. Understanding the figurative language the prophets use is imperative for good interpretation.
  • Look for the main idea instead of trying to squeeze every detail for meaning.
  • The New Testament Interprets the Old Testament. Look for NT quotes of OT passages (a Bible with cross references is helpful here). What does the NT say about this passage? How does the NT interpret it? What does the NT give as the fulfillment? (this is not always clear).
  • Consider the literary form and how the books is structured. Look for poetry, oracles, enacted symbols, the historical narrative (Isaiah is structured around 3 historical narratives), laments, visions, and figures of speech.

 

 

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Understanding the Prophets Part 1 (31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible :: Day 14)

 

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Another genre found in the Old Testament is Prophecy. There are 4 major prophets— Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and 12 minor prophets— which are the last 12 books of the Old Testament. The terms “major” and “minor” are given according to the length of the books and have nothing to do with level of significance. They all are of equal importance! Prophetic books were written between approximately 760 and 460 BC. They mainly record the words of the prophet (given to the prophet by God), and some give us glimpses of the prophet’s life history.

What does prophecy mean?

Prophecy does involve predicting future events, but this was only a small aspect of prophecy, and not the prophet’s main purpose. Prophecy, in its broadest sense, is simply the message of a prophet.

Who Were the Prophets?

The prophets were enforcers of the Covenant— they exhorted God’s people to remain faithful to the Covenant, and so be blessed, and to warn them of the punishment if they did not. Much of the prophet’s work was to repeat the blessings and curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. The prophet acted as a spokesman from God to His people, to speak God’s word of:

  • Judgement on the ungodly (sword, famine, disease), calling for true heart repentance— religiosity was not enough. 
  • A promise of future hope to the faithful remnant. The promise was: 1) physical restoration after exile and 2) spiritual restoration when the Messiah came.

One trait characterized all of the prophets: a faithful proclamation of God’s Word and not their own. (Jer 23:16, Ezk 13:2.)

A prophet received his call directly from God. Their ministry was not inherited or passed through family lines, but they were appointed to the ministry by God. Prophets included: shepherds and farmers (Elisha and Amos), youth (Jeremiah), priests (Ezekiel), and women (Huldah).

Nature and Function of the Prophets:

  • Enforcers of the Covenant— Their main job was calling people back to the Covenant. A true prophet affirms the Law of God.
  • God’s spokesmen—  They brought God’s Word to their contemporary situation. A repeated phrase through the Prophets is “Thus says the LORD” or “says the LORD.” The prophets’ message was not their own, but God’s message to the people.
  • Teaching— Teaching with the goal of moral reformation. Their message was not a new one but a cry to remember the Covenant. They called the people to repentance. There is a major theme repeated throughout the prophets— it is a cycle of 1) sin 2) judgement 3) restoration . The prophets also spoke of Israel’s past (what God had done for them throughout history), present (their idolatry and hearts far from God, social injustice, corruption, trusting other nations instead of God) and future (coming judgement because of sin and hope and restoration that would follow— because of God’s goodness and mercy).
  • Predictive— a statement about the future that is beyond the power of human knowledge to discern, calculate, or bring to pass. Predictions for the future were not to satisfy the curiosity of the people but to serve as leverage to bring people to repentance— back to the covenant (Jer 22:1-7). Predictions also offered hope to the true believers as the prophets spoke of future restoration and blessing. There were short-term prophecies that were fulfilled in the lifetime of the original audience (such as prophecies about Israel and Judah’s exile) and long-range prophecies— which normally looked to the Messianic age where spiritual restoration would come. This includes the time between Jesus’ first and second coming and the age to come (the now and not yet). (I have an article from the School of Biblical Studies that I attended, called Wrestling With Eschatological Prophecy, which you can download and read here. It is a must read for interpreting prophecy that deals with the Messianic age!)

How Should We Interpret the Prophecies?

Many Christians today mainly look to the prophets for predictions about what is still to happen in our future. Interpretations will vary by denomination, tradition, or opinion, but this is one view (from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth), that shows how dangerous this approach might be:

  • Less than 2% of Old Testament prophecy is Messianic (about Jesus).
  • Less than 5% specifically describes the New Covenant age.
  • Less than 1% concerns events yet to come.

According to this view— which I tend to take, most of the prophesies have already been fulfilled. We shouldn’t necessarily look at the prophets as predicting our current events (they are not to be used as a side by side commentary with our newspapers!),  “yet some of the prophecies of the (original audience’s) near future were set against the background of the eschatological (regarding the end times) future, and sometimes they seem to blend. The Bible regularly sees God’s acts in temporal history in light of his overall plan for all of human history.” So generally speaking the predictions were specific for the original audience but at times such prophecies revealed or alluded to a bigger, future reality that came with Christ’s first coming or will come with His second coming.

We must look at the Prophets in their historical context, knowing what state Israel or Judah was in politically, economically, and spiritually. Remember that they were words from God into a specific historical situation in the nation of Israel or the surrounding nations, and can only be understood in that context.

Important Historical Background

If you want a thorough understanding of the historical background/context of the prophets, read Kings and Chronicles, articles in Bible dictionaries (look up names of prophets, books, surrounding nations such as Assyria), the introduction to commentaries, and Bible handbooks. Here’s a quick overview that will help you understand the context of the prophets:

  • After Joshua conquered the land the Lord had promised to give them, the Israelites settled and the land was divided up by families or tribes, based on the sons/ancestors of Jacob. It was divided into 12 portions. (Joseph’s ancestors actually got a double portion in Manasseh and Ephraim.)
  • God said He alone would be Israel’s king but Israel wanted to be like their surrounding nations so they complained to God, requesting a man they could see for a king, so God allowed them kings.
  • The people of Israel (all the tribes) became united as one kingdom for 150 years. Kings under the united kingdom were Saul, David, and Solomon.
  • At the end of Solomon’s rule, the kingdom became divided. It was divided for about 400 years. Ten tribes joined together in the north and became known as Israel. The tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi (Levites didn’t have their own land portion because they were the priests who lived and ministered among all of the tribes, but during the divided kingdom they became more attributed with the south), joined together and became collectively known as Judah. Israel had a succession of 19 kings, none of whom were good/godly. Judah had a succession of 20 kings, 8 of whom were good. Israel and Judah were at constant war with one another.
  • Some prophets spoke/were prophets to Israel, and others to Judah (and a couple actually spoke to surrounding nations— like Jonah).
  • One warning you see throughout the prophets is that of impending exile. The prophets basically told the people, shape up or you’ll be carried off.
  • These warnings were fulfilled. Assyria came in and conquered and scattered Israel. Israel did not remain in tact and the people basically assimilated into the surrounding nations.  Some time later, Babylonia conquered Assyria and exiled Judah— they were carried off to Babylon but remained in tact as a people. During this time, Jerusalem— and the temple— were burned down. Then Persia conquered Babylon and under Persia’s rule the remnant— those remaining from Judah, were allowed to return to their land to rebuild walls, their temple (which had been destroyed during the conquests and exiles) and their identity as a nation. (Side note— the books of Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah take place under this period of time.)

Here’s a visual timeline of all of the prophets— showing who they prophesied to (on top of each column) and what time period they were a part of (this is printable if you click on the image):

 
I think I will end here for today since this post is getting pretty long! The prophets are one of the harder genres to understand and I have a lot more information I can share so I will do that in another post. I will try to post Part 2 in the next couple of days.

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Wisdom Literature Part 2 (31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible) Day 13

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In Part 1 I talked about the wisdom book of Proverbs. Proverbs are short pity sayings that offer practical wisdom. They essentially ask the questions what or how? Each Proverb does not give the whole picture, as the proverbs were written to be memorized and the same subjects are covered again and again, each time with a slightly different slant.

Job and Ecclesiastes are two other wisdom literature books but they differ in that they are less practical in application. They are considered speculative wisdom because they deal with the big questions in life—questions of why? The perplexities of human existence are contemplated at a deeper level, where the popular generalizations of Proverbs fall short of giving adequate answers. More difficult questions are asked about the meaning of life or the problem of suffering.

Regarding Job:

“The big idea that the book of Job communicates is that although God is in control, not everything that happens in this life is his doing or according to his will. The world is fallen, corrupted by sin, and under the domination of Satan”  (see also John 12:31 or this sermon that explores that reality). This book is a long argument about suffering. The “friends” of Job state that he is suffering because he must have sinned. Job says he has not sinned; but he doesn’t know why he’s suffering. In the end God honors Job’s honesty and condemns the friends’ platitudes. There are many lessons to learn on how to be alongside someone who is suffering. As I mentioned in Part 1, this book needs to be read in context. If you can, try to read it in one sitting so that you follow the dialogue that is taking place. (Quote taken from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.)

Something to know about Job is that he likely lived and the events written about took place around the same time as Genesis 11-12 (about 4,000 years ago!). There are several indicators that point to that time as the setting of Job (such as his lifespan must have been close to 200 years (Job 42:16) which fits the period of the patriarchs when people lived longer, his wealth was measured in terms of livestock instead of gold and silver (Job 1:3, 42:12), and more. You can look up Job in a Bible dictionary or handbook for a thorough explanation). It is not known who wrote the book or when it was written— whether Job himself wrote the book or whether it was written by Moses, Solomon, or someone else. By the way— most of the books of the Bible were written after the events actually took place, so there will usually be two dates to consider— 1) when the events written about occurred and 2) when they were actually recorded. So in this case, it is likely the events occurred somewhere around 2,000 BC but the book could have been written around 1450 BC or 950 BC. I know that reality reveals or implies an oral tradition—  which skeptics use to justify their disbelief in the authority of Scripture. Critics think it cannot be the inspired Word of God since it was passed down verbally through generations before being recorded. I love what Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, says about this: “On its human side, I assume that it (the Bible) was produced and preserved by competent human beings who were at least as intelligent and devout as we are today. I assume that they were quite capable of accurately interpreting their own experience and of objectively presenting what they heard and experienced in the language of their historical community, which we today can understand with due diligence. On the divine side, I assume that God has been willing and competent to arrange for the Bible, including its record of Jesus, to emerge and be preserved in ways that will secure his purposes for it among human beings worldwide. Those who actually believe in God will be untroubled by this.”

Regarding Ecclesiastes:

This book, in the form of a monologue, is about a man looking for meaning to life. He tries just about everything and nothing satisfies his longing for fulfillment. The climax of the book sums up the search for the meaning of life: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). Theologians have two different theories about how to interpret this book. One side “understands Ecclesiastes to be an expression of cynical wisdom, which serves as a kind of “foil” regarding an outlook on life that should be avoided. The aim of the book, by this understanding, is to represent the sort of “wisdom” that Solomon could produce after he had degenerated from orthodoxy (1 Kings 11:1-13), a view of life that is supposed to leave you cold because it is so fatalistic and discouraging— and therefore make you long for the alternative of a real covenant relationship with the living God. The other side understands the book more positively, as an expression of how one should enjoy life under God in a world in which all will die in the end. This view says that “even if the only real certainty about this present life is the certainty of the grave, one should still live life, as it is, a gift from God. Joy in this life does not come ultimately from “getting” but in the journey itself, the life that God has given.” (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.)

 The Song of Solomon

Another wisdom book is the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs—some don’t think Solomon could have written the book since it is a book about a monogamous relationship and Solomon had many wives). This book is considered lyric wisdom—it is a poetic, lengthy love song. Its purpose is to teach wisdom regarding marriage and sexual fidelity. It celebrates human love in a monogamous relationship as God’s good gift. Early Christians were uncomfortable with its “explicit exultation of marital sexual love” so they decided they would interpret it as an allegory— though it clearly is not written as such. Even young Jews were prohibited from reading this book until they were older because of its sexual content and nature. This books uses lots of poetic language—  symbols, similes, euphemisms, etc. — and it is explicit (for example see Song of Songs 2:3)— but with the purpose of teaching us that sex is good and beautiful and should be celebrated in the context for which God designed it— marriage. (The wedding procession in the book occurs in 3:6-11 and the marriage is consummated in 4:16-5:1. Preceding the wedding is the courtship, the bride’s longing for affection, expressions of mutual love, and the bride’s dream of separation. After the wedding the bride has another dream of separation, and they grow in their love.)

The confusing thing about this book is that, like Job, it can be hard to figure out who is speaking. This is the likely arrangement:

The bride: 1:2-4, 5-7, 12-14, 16-17; 2:1, 3-6, 8-17; 3:1-4; 4:16; 5:2-8, 10-16; 6:2-3, 11-12; 7:9-13; 8:1-3, 6-7, 10-12, 14.

The groom: 1:8-10, 15; 2:2, 7; 3:5; 4:1-15; 5:1; 6:4-10, 13; 7:1-9; 8:4-5, 13.

The chorus: 1:4, 11; 3:6-11; 5:9; 6:1, 13; 8:5, 8-9.

A helpful tip: In my own Bible I color coded along the sides—  pink when the bride is speaking, green when the groom is speaking, and plain pencil when it’s the choir, in order to quickly differentiate who is speaking. See below:

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If you are married, this would be a great book to study with your spouse. This book offers a warning to “catch the little foxes that  ruin the vineyard.” In other words— what negative attitudes or actions are you allowing into your marriage? These— like little foxes, will bring destruction, so be quick to catch them and get rid of them, and through God’s grace and strength, don’t allow them in.  :-) If you are single, the book offers this advice: “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” And, be “a garden locked”. If you have failed, the good news is that Jesus makes all things new. He heals, cleanses, and restores. You are forgiven and free from shame and condemnation in Christ. The enemy wants nothing more than to devalue you and make you feel like damaged goods and ashamed— but that is not who you are in Christ. I’ve seen friends go into marriage carrying shame over sexual mistakes from their past— and it always ends up affecting their sex life in marriage. If  that is you, I want to encourage you to start speaking truth over yourself (You are: in Christ, forgiven, made new, as white as snow), and to ask the Lord to help you see sex in marriage as He sees it and created it to be— beautiful and celebrated.

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Understanding Wisdom Literature ~ Proverbs (31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible :: Day 12)

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Wisdom Literature in the Bible

The three main books in the category of wisdom literature are Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, though wisdom literature is found in other books— such as in Song of Songs, Psalms, and Habakkuk. Wisdom literature is mostly written in poetic form and therefore many figures of speech are used.

This type of literature and instruction was common in the ancient East. Wisdom was always taught primarily in the home, but certain individuals—  “wise men”—  were sought out for instruction in wise living and thinking. Such wise men were always more practical than theoretical.

Biblical wisdom is unique in that it teaches that the very first step in gaining wisdom is knowing and fearing (not in the sense of being afraid of but more of a revering) God. Biblical wisdom has nothing to do with being smart or clever, it is not a matter of age. Instead it is “a matter of orientation to God, out of which comes the ability to please him. Wisdom is the ability to make godly choices in life which is achieved by applying God’s truth to your life.” James 1:5 says that God will give wisdom to those who ask for it.

Something to try… Since James 1:5 promises that God will help us become more godly in our choices (he will give us wisdom) *if* we ask him, think about where you’d like to grow in making godly choices. Start asking God to help you make godly choices in your marriage, parenting, job, homemaking, finances, schooling, relationships, lifestyle choices, habits, etc.


The main guidelines for reading wisdom literature are:

1) They are meant to be read in context. You must read the whole book to get the overall message that is being communicated. When people read these books in bits and pieces, they will not usually follow the line of argument— which will lead to confusion or misinterpretation. People end up citing as biblical truth what was intended as an incorrect understanding of life.” For example, Job 15:20 says: All their days the wicked suffer torment, the ruthless through all the years stored up for them. “Would you take this to be an inspired teaching that evil people cannot really be happy? Job did not! He energetically refuted it! This verse is part of a speech by Job’s self-appointed “comforter” Eliphaz, who is trying to convince Job that the reason he is suffering so much is that he has been evil. Later in the book God vindicates the words of Job and condemns the words of Eliphaz (Job 42:7-8). But unless you follow the whole discourse of Job, you cannot know this.” You can see how reading one verse out of context will lead you to a very different and wrong conclusion than what was intended.

2) Remember to consider figures of speech and literary styles.

A Closer Look at the Wisdom Books 

First we will start with Proverbs.

Proverbs are a unique literary style of writing. Proverbs are short pithy sayings that give observations or practical guidelines for successful every-day living. Proverbs are observations of life, not promises of prosperity and health. The setting of the book is a father giving advice to his son, encouraging him to seek wisdom rather than folly. You can see wisdom and folly contrasted throughout the book. Proverbs were written to be catchy and memorable expressions of truth. They were/are not intended to be taken as exact precise statements. For example, an English proverb says “look before you leap.” This is in inexact but memorable statement. “It does not say where or how to look, what to look for, or how soon to leap after looking. It is not even intended to apply literally to jumping.” It is a brief and memorable way to say something along the lines of “in advance of committing yourself to a course of action, consider your circumstances and options.” The former (brief expression) is the way in which the Hebrew authors wrote the Proverbs. In the original language many of the proverbs have some sort of rhythm, sound repetition or vocabulary qualities that make them easy to learn. (This is a total tangent and although I have no desire to get into controversial subjects on this blog, I will mention that understanding the literary context of Proverbs has reshaped my views on spanking in child discipline. I have moved away from spanking after understanding that Proverbs are not meant to be precise literal commands. I take Proverbs 13:24 “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” to mean that if you neglect to discipline your child when needed, you do them a huge disservice, but if want the best for them you should be consistent and intentional about training them. I look for the principle that is being communicated instead of scrupulously dissecting every word (like I might do when reading New Testament Pauline theology). In addition, wisdom literature is meant to be read in context of the entire passage or book in order to get the whole message. So I see discipline to mean instruction, training, walking alongside, correcting when needed, etc. It is multi-faceted according to the picture Proverbs gives us.)

As I mentioned above, wisdom literature uses lots of figurative language, so be aware of the many figures of speech as you read Proverbs and don’t take things literal that are meant to be figurative.

Here are a few tips for reading and understanding Proverbs (this and all above quotes from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth):

1. Proverbs are often parabolic (they are figurative, alluding to something more).

2. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.

3. Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.

4. Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behavior— just the opposite.

5. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning. For example Proverbs 25:24 talks says “better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” In Bible times, roofs were flat so lodging on a roof was both possible and common.

6. Proverbs are not guarantees from God but poetic guidelines for good living.

7. Proverbs may use exaggeration (hyperbole), euphemism, or any of a variety of literary techniques to make their point.

8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life, but are not exhaustive in their coverage.

9. Wrongly used, proverbs may justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.

 

Because this post is getting long I will split it in two parts and will talk about other wisdom books in the next post. I’m getting ready to attend a Walk Thru the Bible Instructor Training course in less than two weeks (which I’ve had to prepare and study for), we have family coming into town, and my sister is getting married this month. My goal is to keep posting 1-2 times a week but if I’m not here you’ll know why. :-) Thanks for reading and following along. Peace.

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Understanding Figures of Speech in the Bible (31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible) {Day 11}

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I have more posts to write regarding the types of literature found in the Bible …I still need to cover wisdom literature including a possible separate post on Proverbs, prophecy, gospels, parables, epistles, apocalyptic literature (such as Revelation), and eschatology (regarding the end times), but I figured we’d take a little interlude here to talk about Figures of Speech since the last posts were on poetry— and poetry is full of figures of speech. In order to better understand the Bible, readers need to be able to identify and interpret figurative language… figures of speech.

Literary devices or figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, paradox, types, rhetorical questions, personification, and hyperbole, are found throughout the Bible. These all are by nature poetical, but the thing about the Bible is figures of speech are found everywhere (not just in the poetical books).

It is important to be familiar with some of the common literary devices that are used in the Bible because knowing how they work will spare us from misinterpretations. “For example, exaggeration in a story that purports to be factual history (such as the stories found in historical narratives) would be a form of untruth, while that same type of exaggeration in lyric poetry is called hyperbole and is a standard way of expressing emotional truth.” (From How to Read the Bible as Literature by Ryken.)

A verse that trips up a lot of Christians and non-Christians alike is Luke 14:26, where Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This is an example of hyperbole— an exaggeration with the intent of making a point. If you’ve read the rest of the Gospels you would know that to interpret that literally would contradict Jesus’ other teachings to love and serve others. He does not mean we ought to literally hate our family members— instead he’s saying that to be his disciple one has to be willing to give up their life to follow him and that our love for God should be first and foremost— with all other loves paling in comparison. It is figurative (not literal) language, but readers who do not know how to identify and interpret hyperbole will be confused by this verse and will likely misinterpret it.

So here are some of the figures of speech (a figure of speech is a literary mode of expression in which words are used out of their literal sense to suggest a picture or image) frequently seen in the Bible:

~Simile: A direct comparison of two things that are essentially different. Characterized by use of: like, as, and so. Examples are James 1:10-11, Song of Solomon 2:2-3, Matthew 23:27.

~Metaphor: An indirect comparison of two things. Asserts that one thing is another. Substitution of the name of one thing for another. Like a simile but the connectives of like, as, and so are left out. Examples are Galatians 2:9 “pillars”, Proverbs 23:27, Matthew 3:7 “you brood of vipers”.

~Allegory: An extended metaphor that has the form of a story. Example is Galatians 4:21-31. Examples from literature are Pilgrim’s Progress and Screwtape Letters.

~Irony: Implies something different, even the opposite of what was stated. Used for the effect of humor or sarcasm. Examples are 1 Corinthians 4:8 and 6:5.

~Personification: The attribution of life or human qualities to inanimate objects. Examples are Genesis 4:10-11Proverbs 9:1-3, Proverbs 8.

~Apostrophe: Addressing or speaking to things, abstract ideas or imaginary objects. Example is 1 Corinthians 15:55 “O death, where is your sting?”

~Hyperbole: Exaggeration, not with the intent to deceive but to emphasize and intensify an impression. Examples are Galatians 4:15 “you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me”, Mark 9:43 “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off…”.

~Rhetorical Questions: These are questions posed for which the author doesn’t expect an answer (often because the author already knows the answer. They are said to make a point— often times in sarcasm). Examples are 1 Corinthians 1:13 “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?…”, Matthew 7:16.

~Litotes: The use of understatement. It is the opposite of hyperbole and is often used as irony. Example is Acts 15:2 “no small debate”.

~Metonomy: The substitution of one term for another. Example is Romans 3:30 “Circumcised” for “Jews”, Galatians 3:19 “offspring” for “Jesus”.

~Synecdoche: Part of something is mentioned but the whole is meant. Example is: Galatians 1:16.

~ Euphemism: The substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for a harsh, blunt one. Euphemisms are used to indirectly discuss such topics as bodily functions, anatomy, or unpleasant topics. Examples are Genesis 4:1, Isaiah 7:20.

~Anthropomorphism: The practice of describing God in human terms as if he has hands, feet, a face, etc. Examples are Exodus 24:10, John 10:29.

~Types: A type foreshadows (prefigures)  something or someone to come. A prefiguring symbol such as an Old Testament event prefiguring an event in the New Testament: the Passover foreshadows Christ’s sacrificial death (1 Corinthians 5:7). Often types are explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. Examples are Romans 5:14, 1 Corinthians 15:45, John 3:14-15.

~Symbols: Something that stands for another meaning in addition to its ordinary meaning. It is usually a visual image that represents an invisible concept. In interpreting symbols one is not free to impose his own interpretation but he must discover the author’s intention by taking into consideration the culture, principles of interpretation, the overall message of the book and in many cases the author’s own specific definition. Example are Revelation 1:12 & 20.

~Paradox: A statement that seems absurd, self-contradictory, or contrary to logical thought, but with an underlying truth. Example is Matthew 16:25: “Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.”

To get the most out of our faith journeys we truly need to learn to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. Familiarizing yourself with these literary devices will definitely help you better understand the Bible, and it is one small way to exercise your mind, to the glory of God.name