Observation: Job One in the Bible Study Process

hands bibleThere are three basic steps to hermeneutics (interpretation of Scripture) that should be followed in order to find the intended meaning in a passage: observation, interpretation, and application. The first step is always observation. It is our human tendency to give something a good read, then jump right to the second step. But when we rush through observation, we will miss so many important details that will make the passage come alive. Every word is there for a reason. So we need to note what those words are!

Here are some general strategies to good observation.

1. Before you do anything, pray.
1 Corinthians 2:11-16 tells us “the thoughts of God no one know except the Spirit of God. Now we have received… the Spirit who is from God so that we may know the things freely given to us by God…those taught by the Spirit.” Ask the Holy Spirit to teach and guide you. He will be faithful to do it.

2. Approach the passage with a clean slate.
One of the greatest killers to our potential to discover truth is approaching Scripture with the attitude: “I already know that.”

3. Look for what is emphasized (find repeated words or ideas).

4. Look for the main point of the passage. You can also find supporting details in many passages as well. Often the author gives several examples to flesh out a main point.

5. List phrases that modify the same thing (easily detectable in the grammatical structure I send you).

6. Note anything you learn about God. After all, Scripture is one big revelation of Him! We don’t want to miss the forest for the trees.

7. List reasons the author gives for something.

8. Compare and contrast. You know I love me some charts. A chart will give you a visual layout of two things that are being contrasted in a passage. The word “but” usually signals a comparison. Also two characters in a story are often there to expose each other.

9. Look up meanings on important words from the original Greek. This can be easily done with blueletterbible.org.
• Type in the passage in their search box (you can specify what version you are using).
• Click on the blue link that gives the verse number. This will take you to a word-for-word literal correspondence, English to Greek.
• Click on the Strong’s number next to the word you wish to investigate. This will take you to a page dedicated to just that Greek word.
• This will give you several definitions, from an old lexicon (Thayers). Because this lexicon does not contain recent research/archaeological finds of ancient literature that help us define a word, we need to go a bit farther than this.
• Scroll further down the page until you find all the times this word is used elsewhere in the Bible. Take a look at these and use their context to help you get a good sense of the word.
• Now write out a definition from all you have researched.

10. Note parallel ideas being presented.

11. Look for cause and effect relationships.

12. Look for word pictures. The Bible is chock-full of these! They are wonderful tools that make Scripture come alive. Similes, metaphors, and personification are all liberally used by God. When you spot one, take time to think of the qualities that the picture and the actual thing being compared have in common.

13. Note signal words.
• For indicates the author is about to list a reason.
• Therefore, so that, for this reason indicate the author has just given you a reason. What follows then will be our appropriate response.
• Therefore can also indicate a summary or conclusion is about to be made.
• But, however, nevertheless signal contrast. Look to see what two things are being compared.

14. Note verbs: whether they are active (the subject is doing them) or passive (being done to the subject.) Blueletterbible.org can help with this. Look up the verse, find the verb, and click on the “parse” button.

15. Find the pronouns (he, she, it, they, them) and determine the antecedent they are replacing.

16. Ask questions. What don’t I understand? What do I need to find out more about? Write these down and bring them with you to class.

Not all of these strategies will be usable in every passage, of course! Keep this list handy for when you come to a stand-still in your observations. They might give you something else to look for and get you moving again!

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About juliecoleman

Julie Coleman is an author, teacher, and speaker, focusing on Biblical study and women's ministries. Besides speaking at women's retreats and conferences, Julie has written two books - Unexpected Love and 15 Minutes a Day in Colossians.

  1. Julie is this a shareable article?

  2. We are kindred spirits. I love Bible study, and I appreciate the list you posted. Sometimes I do what you said–I think, “I know what this says.” But when I slow down and read it prayerfully, I discover a new “layer” of understanding. God’s Word is so full of truth and relevance for life today!

  3. So true, Katy. Even in passages I have studied at great length, when I come back to them later, there is more. It’s a bottomless depth of truth available to us…we just need to keep looking!

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