How can we study a book of the Bible in a deep and meaningful way? In this article, you will find some helpful guidelines.
Each biblical book is different: in length, in content, in its character, and in its literary genre. As we learn to read the book in a methodical manner, we will find the benefits of discovering what the book has to say as a whole, beyond the few favorite or prominent verses that might be well known to us from that book.
The best way to begin our study is to divide it into steps. We may choose to adjust these guidelines according to personal preferences, but it is recommended that we try to adhere to all of the steps. In this way, we will be able to swim into the “deep end” of our study, and not to remain only in the shallows.
There are a few things that are important for us to examine before we study a book of the Bible:
- Literary genre – Does the book have narrative elements, laws, poetry, or a different type of literary genre? Where is each type found in the book, what is its purpose in the book, and how do the different types work together in relation to the book as a whole?
- Meanings of words – How are different words being used and what are their meanings? Which words are used repeatedly (keywords), prominent phrases, motives, etc. that appear in the text?
- Structure – What is the structure of the book? How does it begin and how does it end? How is it built and how many parts are within it? How do these individual parts work together in relation to the book as a whole?
A recommendation: print the text of all the chapters of the book that you are about to study (preferably with increased spacing between the lines). In this way you are able to easily mark words and write notes in the margins and in between the lines. If you prefer to do all of this in your own Bible, this is fine too.
First and foremost: Prayer!
We recommend that each time you come to read and study the Scriptures, pray that God will guide you in His Word. Ask Him to give you an open mind and heart, so that it won’t be an intellectual study only, but that through the study you will hear what He wants to say to you personally through His Word.
Step 1: First reading and the big picture
Part 1 – First reading
Read the entire book for the first time. In this first reading, the goal is to gain a first impression and to start to notice details within the content, the structure, and the message of the book in its entirety. While you are reading, start to mark for yourself the following things (remember that this is just the first reading, so you don’t need to find every single thing at once).
a. Challenging words. In this step, just mark the words that are difficult to understand. Then, look them up in a dictionary, a concordance, or other reference material.
b. Words that appear repeatedly.
c. Phrases that seem important.
d. Subjects that are introduced in different ways.
e. Characters: Who are the main characters and who are the secondary ones? (A character in a book can be God Himself, people, nations, etc.) What is told about them and what role do they fill in the book? How is their personality portrayed in the book?
f. Different types of writing (literary genres): for example, is the general writing style narrative but suddenly there appear lines of poetry? Or, is the book written in a prophetic style, but then also includes some narrative of historical events?
g. Structure of the book: In this step, ask yourself during the reading, does the book have a clear and prominent structure? How does the book open and how does it close?
Part 2 – Checking a biblical dictionary
Review the challenging words that you previously marked and look them up in a biblical dictionary, a concordance, or other reference material. Write down their meanings. If the words are less used, then search for the other places and the other contexts where the words are found in the Bible; or if the word is a ‘hapax legomenon’ (a word that only appears once in the entire text of the Bible).
Part 3 – Read again
Read through the book again and pay special attention to the different features (as described in Part 1). Make sure to mark or write down whatever you had not noticed during the first reading.
Then ask yourself:
- Why does the author repeatedly use a specific word?
- Where is the emphasis placed?
- In which ways is this emphasis realized?
- How does the literary style contribute to the message in the book?
Part 4 – Continuing to read
It is worthwhile to read the book over and over again! Each additional reading will contribute and add to your understanding and to the details that you have already noted. When you go on to the next steps of the study, it is important to always return to the book itself and to continue to read it again and again.
Step 2: Context
In this stage of the study, the goal is to get to know the historical background of the book, its place in the Bible, and its shared content with other parts of the Bible, together with the unique content it contains. This step may be relatively short, or relatively long, depending on the book you chose to study.
In which part of the Scriptures is the book found (Pentateuch, early prophets, later prophets, writings, gospels, epistles)? It is worthwhile to check the book’s connection to the books that appear before and after it. Look at these books and ask yourself: Is there a connection? Is there a continuation? Are there shared motives? Does the book connect to some time period (for example, one of the prophet’s books)? Look for other parts of the Bible that relate to the same time period.
Step 3: Reference materials
In this step, having thoroughly read through the book, find helpful external materials that are about the book. Commentaries, encyclopedias, reference books, etc. can yield useful information that otherwise would require a lot of time and research to learn otherwise. These reference books will also help to guide you towards more lines of thinking about the book. However, remember that all commentaries and reference books are auxiliary – they can provide interpretations and opinions that can be beneficial, but they are not divinely inspired or necessarily accurate. So with this in mind, use these reference materials to gain a deeper and more accurate knowledge of God’s Word, and at the same time, remember that the important and ultimate authority is the Word of God itself.
Step 4: Back to the book!
With all the things that you have found in steps 2-3, return to the book itself.
Read through the book one more time, slowly and thoroughly, and pay attention to all of the things that you have already learned, marked, and written down. Now, in this fresh reading, pay attention to additional things with the questions and categories that you already started to look into since the first reading. Write down for yourself the following things:
a. Words that appear repeatedly.
b. Phrases that seem important.
c. Subjects that are introduced in different ways.
d. Different types of writing (literary genres): for example, is the general writing style narrative but all of a sudden there are some lines of poetry? Or, is the book written in a prophetic style but then also includes some narrative of historical events?
e. Structure of the book: In this step, ask yourself during the reading, does the book have a clear and prominent structure? How does the book begin and how does it end?
Read through the book once more, but this time faster, in order to ascertain the following things: what is the sequence of the book? What is its structure? Now, having read through it many times, you should be able to recognize more easily the changes in subject, the repeated motives, etc.
Step 5: Summary
Now you are able to summarize your study. Try to write a one-page summary of the whole book. Additionally, you could add a diagram or a drawing if this helps to make things clearer for you.
Different elements that should be found in your summary:
a. The main emphasis (or emphases) of the book.
b. In which ways was this realized in the book.
c. The sequence of the book’s content (here you can briefly summarize the content)
d. The structure of the book.
e. What stood out to you personally in the book, and how did God speak to you through His Word.
We hope that your reading of God’s Word will be enjoyable and blessed!