17 Min Read
You’ve read a passage from the Bible. Great. You feel as if God is speaking to you from that passage. Greater yet. But is He?
Was it God or indigestion? Not sure? Let’s find out together.
Expository preaching genius, Dr. Steven J. Lawson defines exegesis this way:
“The word is a transliteration of the Greek word exegesis, which means an explanation or interpretation. […] It is a compound word, combining hegeomai, which means ‘to lead,’ with the prefix ek, meaning ‘out of.’ Literally, it means ‘to lead out of.’ The idea is to lead the meaning out of what has been said.”
Whenever we approach the Bible and we read a couple of verses or chapters, the tendency is to apply all of the wonderful things we read to our lives and attribute all the bad things to someone else. Especially, people, we do not like.
But we have to quiz ourselves on how we interpret scripture. How we understand the words we read and how our minds work when reading them.
Out of the passages listed below, tell me which ones you believe apply to you and which ones do not.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11
“And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2-3
“No weapon formed against you shall prosper, and every tongue which rises against you in judgment you shall condemn.” – Isaiah 54:17
Take a breather. How we doing? 3-for-3 so far?
Feeling good? Are you sure? Cool. Let’s keep going.
“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” – Genesis 4:12
“‘Ah, stubborn children,’ declares the Lord, ‘who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin;’“ – Isaiah 30:1
“Woe to you, […], hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. […] You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” – Matthew 27-28, 33
But that ain’t talking to me tho!
How did you do on our mini-quiz? Were you six-for-six or three out of six in applying these verses to your own life?
Why do we hold on to these beautiful verses and disregard the sad and gloomy ones?
I believe it’s because we’re interpreting scripture with an eisegetical approach (eisegesis, the interpretation of a text as of the Bible by reading into it one’s own ideas). This is a misleading practice, contrary to exegesis, where we bring the text out. We should not infuse ourselves into it.
Like, instead of placing our head through a window to look into a house to study the contents therein (please don’t do this, it’s trespassing and super creepy) we look at a house from a distance and make assumptions of what’s inside, who’s inside, and how the layout of the house is without ever stepping a foot inside. We believe everything in that house belongs to us. We claim its possessions for ourselves.
Like a man who claims to be a certified and experienced diving instructor but has never left the comfort of his home and computer to physically experience deep-sea diving. He studies the animals only from a limited and distanced approach, unaware of how these creatures move, how they feel, or how they react to divers. He is unaware of the temperature drop in these depths. His scuba-diving skills, expertise, and history are limited to a glass screen with very limited information. He may have studied the intricate network of coral reefs and their effect on the eco-system but he does not understand the awe and marvel of swimming with the creatures that live there.
We tend to approach the Bible in the same way. But why?
I believe it’s because, one, we’re selfish. I mean, come on, who doesn’t want all the promises, blessings, and booties of God’s marvelous works on earth? Shoot. I do! But it’s a selfish way to approach God’s divine book. Thus, it’s a limited way of reading scripture.
And two, we were never taught how to truly exegete, interpret, study scripture, and correctly apply the words or principles of the Bible to our lives.
Too many of us fail to realize how many layers the Bible really has and this limitation has left us wanting or with a distorted understanding of a biblical text.
Dr. Steven J. Lawson illustrates this best in his article on Embracing Exegesis (emphasis added by me):
“[…] the exegete must also take into consideration the cultural background of his passage. Rightly understanding its meaning requires that he know something of the customs in the ancient Middle East. Without the knowledge of the manners and customs of the ancient Jews and the surrounding empires and nations, it will be hard, if not impossible, for him to grasp what many texts actually mean. Consequently, it is incumbent upon the expositor to view Scripture in light of how the different aspects of daily life were conducted long ago.
This requires an understanding of life on many different levels in Israel, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Europe. This means researching the political environment of the day. This includes a knowledge of kings, pharaohs, caesars, tetrarchs, and centurions, such as understanding their jurisdiction and how they operated. There must be the knowledge of ancient social customs such as banquets, parties, meals, betrothals, weddings, and funerals. There must be insight into ancient economic policies such as banking practices involving loans and interest rates. There must also be an understanding of ancient military procedures, including battles, chariots, shields, swords, helmets, and the like.
In addition, the exegete must have a working knowledge of the climate conditions and weather in the Middle East. He must have background information concerning the agricultural procedures of ancient farming such as sowing seed, tiling soil, pruning branches, gathering grain, and enduring famines. He must know about the various native flowers of Israel such as myrrh, aloes, and cassia. He must also be acquainted with the minerals indigenous to Israel- brimstone, miry clay, mire, flint, gold, iron, and silver.
Bridging the cultural gap also requires a basic knowledge of zoological life in ancient Israel and the surrounding region. This includes accessing information regarding bees, dogs, badgers, doves, sea monsters, eagles, flies, foxes, sheep, horses, and more. He must also research shepherding practices in ancient Israel, attending to the importance of a flock, fold, gatekeeper, rod, staff, green pastures, still waters, wolves, and the like. In addition, he must know about hunters in the ancient world, who used bow and arrow, sling, snare, net, pit, and more.”
You’re probably wondering who invests this much time into biblical studies? Ha. Not many of us. But is it important? Absolutely.
I mean I cannot emphasize how important it is from laity to clergy, from church visitors to a doctor of biblical studies to invest this much sweat, brain thought, time, and rigor into their biblical studies.
When we fail to properly exegete, or rather, intepret scriptural texts we attribute certain passages of scripture to ourselves that God never intended for us in the first place. When scripture is taken out of context it becomes a promoter of all things and nothing at all.
We distort scripture we promote slavery.
We distort scripture to control women.
We distort and decontextualize passages to abuse those under us and promote a culture of secrecy where predators reign supreme.
We distort scripture we elevate prosperity preachers to millionaire status.
We distort scripture to promote genocide, infanticide, matricide, patricide, homicide, and good-television-shows-icide.
We distort the simplicity of a text to validate poor conduct in public office, sear our conscious to overlook character flaws, and feign repentance when we’re proven wrong but go on in our error.
We distort scripture to rationalize sin, downplay its effect on us, the potential for the collateral damage it has on our family and community, and use it to soothe our egos.
Jeremiah 29 was intended for a generation that was destined for exile because of their progressively insidious sins against God, God’s Laws, and against their neighbors. God first promised them a swift and complete judgment. God also promised them a future, posterity, and that He would redeem them from the nation to which they would be exiled.
Still, we willingly attribute that promise of prosperity, security, and goodwill to ourselves, disregarding the setting it was made in, the verses and chapters that precede that verse, and the verses and chapters that proceed it. We disregard the cultural, political, religious collapse, and Jeremiah’s ministerial purpose in Judah.
But of course, reading a verse like this, right before going to bed or right before a worship song in a Sunday morning service or right before taking that exam you didn’t study for brings you comfort, right?
When we remove the time in which a passage was written, who the author was, his audience, the surrounding conflicts, both military and religious conflicts we then violate the text and decontextualize it to mean just about anything we want it to mean.
This is dangerous.
How, then, should we study the Bible? How do we read our Bibles and know when God is speaking to us or when He was speaking to someone else?
Well, let’s consider the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, for example. When you open your bible to this book I assume you already know at least two things about it before ever reading a single word from it.
- It’s a book from the bible.
- It’s in the Old Testament.
Now, we must understand who Jeremiah is and where his book fits in the biblical canon. Join me, in the breakdown of the image below:
- The author of the book is Jeremiah, and later in the book, we realize Jeremiah has a co-author, named Baruch, the son of Neriah. So first, it is very helpful to know who the author or authors of the book you are reading are.
- We know Jeremiah is the son of Hilkiah. This helps us differentiate between Jeremiah the prophet and any other Jeremiah’s mentioned in the Bible. Imagine meeting Jake or Lisa in your new job and later finding out there are six Jake’s and three Lisa’s who work there. You learn to distinguish them on paper by their last names. Easy. But back then, men were distinguished by their father’s name and women by their father or husband’s name.
- Jeremiah is the son of a priest. This gives us context into the household Jeremiah was born into. Imagine being raised by a religious man who upholds high moral standards, cares for his family and community, is surrounded by holy texts and scrolls, and takes prayer and worship seriously. The context of Jeremiah’s upbringing is crucial to understanding his tone and message.
- Jeremiah wrote this book because of what God told him to say. So this is not a journal of his own thoughts. It’s what God has commanded him to say.
- Jeremiah’s ministry as a prophet began during the reign of King Josiah (circa 640 BC). Imagine the geographical makeup of Israel 600 years before Christ. Imagine the great empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon on the horizon. Think of the clothing, the jewelry, the food choices, the desert, the mountains, the heat of summer, or the chill of winter. Think of the wealth of a post-Solomon empire and the poverty in which peasants who were forced to make their residence outside Jerusalem’s walls have to live with. Consider these things as you read this book.
- Understand that Israel was a united kingdom under its first monarch, King Saul, then King David, and lastly King Solomon. After King Solomon’s death, Israel split into northern and southern kingdoms. The north, named Israel, with its capital city, Schechem, was reigned by an insurrectionist named Jeroboam. The south, named Judah, its capital city, Jerusalem, was reigned by King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. The politics! The drama! The divided kingdom! This is Game of Thrones’ turf! There’s too much here to ignore!
- Jeremiah began his ministry during King Josiah’s reign (c. 640 BC) and prophesied to the southern nation of Judah until the destruction of Jerusalem, by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (c. 587 BC). So Jeremiah ministered, preached, and prophesied fresh into his youth and well into his old age, where after the destruction of Jerusalem he sought refuge from the Babylonians in the neighbor nation of Egypt.
That’s an introductory view of the first three verses of the book of Jeremiah, folks! When we grasp the reality of these individuals, their upbringing, their cultural realities, the fears and threats of annihilation they faced every day, and the political, cultural, religious, and geological struggles they faced we can better understand the context of a passage and the book we are reading.
If we approach every passage we read by diving into the book as one dives into the sea to explore a life rich coral reef, we can indulge in the beautiful life and principles of scripture.
But when we stand on a boat and only squint at what may be at the bottom of the sea we miss out on so much. Our perception of what is down there is skewed, limited, distant, glassy, and murky.
We must dive into the text to meet the author of that book, the recipients of that prophecy, psalm, blessing or curse, and how God is glorified by the words written in that passage.
And what is more important than knowing the author of a book in the Bible is knowing the God of the Bible, who inspired these writers to pen these books in the first place.
Why should God be the focus of every passage we read in the Bible? Because we can learn more about His character, His conduct, His personality, His motives, His goals, and His ultimate purpose for creation: salvation.
Take Jeremiah 29 and read it within the context, the historical time frame, and the cultural significance is was written in and you’ll understand that God used the prophet Jeremiah to warn the southern nation of Judah that Babylon was going to destroy Jerusalem and take her citizens into captivity for seventy years. And here, in the twenty-ninth chapter of Jeremiah, God reminds the Jews that even though they will go into captivity He will not abandon them for He has a greater plan for this nation; a plan for their welfare, their future. As their city burns to the ground, along with their prized temple of Solomon and the walls that surround it, God reminds them that even though all hope is lost for them He will not allow this nation and people to be wiped from the face of the earth.
When we read this passage, within context, it makes more sense and it glorifies God!
And sure enough, seventy years later He kept His promise. Read 2 Chronicles chapter 14, then Daniel chapter 9, and then Ezra chapter 1.
“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.“
“In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans— in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.“
“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”
Notice the continuance of prophecy, promise, fulfillment, and progression. There’s a linear pattern to how scripture progresses through time and God is both outside and inside that timeline. He steps in at times to hint on things to come. All in all that timeline ultimately focuses on the person of Jesus. From Genesis through to Revelation, all sixty-six books point to one person: Christ.
Not to us.
So the rule, well, not the rule but my personal suggestion for approaching scripture is the same I would advise someone who wants to scuba-dive. There better prepared you are to dive the better you can explore the oceans seabed.
Don’t stick to the surface of a text and apply whatever blessing you read to yourself and whatever curse you find to your cantankerous neighbors.
Explore the author. His audience. His world, geographically, archeologically, politically, religiously, topographically, romantically, prophetically, physically, spiritually, and wholly.
Take larger junks of text. Instead of settling for one or two powerful verses, spend time reading the chapter before and also the chapter after for context.
Sometimes we miss the meaning of a passage or who the audience is because we land in the middle of a story. We can’t truly appreciate the end of a story if we start in the middle of it.
God is greater
And discover the God who inspired that text. It is true that Jeremiah 29 may not be directed at you, specifically, but it’s comforting to know that our God is a Holy God who does not allow sin to go unpunished and at the same time He is a merciful God. He keeps His promises to His people. And when you read texts like Genesis 12 or Isaiah 54 you realize that God is greater than the blessings He bestowed on Abraham and He is greater than our suffering should we encounter it. We are not dependent upon blessings and comfort to understand and appreciate God’s redemptive story for mankind.
Through scripture, God gives us a front-row seat on how He works to redeem mankind to Himself through Jesus Christ.
So next time you’re wondering if that passage about milk and honey, blessings on blessings on blessings, the hedge of protection, and a prophecy of wealth is intended for you, well, spend more time researching the context of the passage you’re reading than trying to make that verse or concept about you.
This will help you understand if God is speaking to you from His character, which is revealed through scripture or if you’re just experiencing indigestion.
That warm and fuzzy feeling in your gut may just be the burritos you had for dinner last night. Not the voice of God.
Studying the Bible this way, with proper and contextual interpretation, will help you appreciate passages like the one below, much more:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” – John 17-20-23
“Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” – John 20:29
And these verses:
“And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:9-11
And finally these:
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” – Revelation 22:12-13
With that in mind, with God in mind, with His face in focus instead of what His hands can give, you will better appreciate the Bible when you read it in context, of course.
Dive deeper than before. Read more than before. And look to the character of God. The Person of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And only then will you know if God is speaking to you or not. When you get to know Him personally.
Questions to consider
- Why is it important that you feel protected? Does God promise everyone protection at all times?
- Which book in Bible do you find hard to properly exegete/interpret?
- When reading the Bible, are you an Exegete or an Eisegete? Which of the two do you think glorify God best?