How To Study the Bible, I

How To Study the Bible, I

Telescope vs. Microscope

How do you study the Bible? On the one hand, it really isn't "Rocket Science." Yet, the notion of science (with its emphasis on observation) can suggest a very helpful approach. Let me explain.

Astronomy relies in large part upon the telescope to capture a sense of the enormity and wholeness of the cosmos. It is a way to ingest the incomprehensible "bigness" of the universe.

On the other hand, Chemistry and Biology both rely upon the microscope, to again see the "unseeable," but at the other end of the spectrum. It is a way to ingest the incomprehensible "smallness" of the universe.

These two instruments can be used as helpful metaphors in studying the Bible. We pick up and read the Bible using two instruments: a spiritual telescope and a spiritual microscope.

Spiritual Telescope

Spiritual Telescope

To study the Bible, you can simply open it up and begin reading. Anywhere. Read until you get "caught up" in the wonder, the majesty, the drama, the dialogue, the peril, the wisdom, the "big story" made up of a thousand smaller stories. There is nothing wrong with this approach. The more you use this telescopic approach, the more you'll begin to see how all the sub-books of the Bible interrelate. You'll begin to see that some books find themselves in different orbits together, yet all seem to revolve around a common center, a common story about the Son.

(Consider, as a telescopic view, Vaughn Roberts book God's Big Picture. It is excellent, though never a substitute for discovering the Biblical Universe's organization on your own).

Closeup of microscope
Spiritual Microscope

Spiritual Microscope

On the other hand, it can be equally mind-blowing to take out your spiritual microscope and dig a bit deeper into the Bible's themes. How can I do this? Again, it's not rocket science (or in this case, microbiology), but a few suggestions will quickly get you on your way toward significant observations of what the Bible is saying. Let me illustrate how I recently put the book of Joel under the microscope and discovered great things. (Joel is the 29th book in the Old Testament. I'm reading from the NIV, 1984 edition).

After reading through this short, three chapter book several times, I decided to answer three simple questions about the book:

  1. What are the Key Verbs in this book (mostly commands by the Lord to His people)?
  2. Who are the Key Players (audience) in this book?
  3. What are the (overtly) Key Truths about God in this book?

By way of introduction, the book of Joel transpires during a period in Israel's history when God's people are lethargic in their devotion to Him (a rather regular occurrence). God, in love, regains their attention by sending a plague of locusts, disrupting their annual food-supply. Suddenly, food, wine, olive oil are all dried up. Even their animals begin to moan. But worst of all: the daily ritual at God's Temple is interrupted as the necessary supplies run out. In this context, God begins his appeal to his people ...

Ok, let's dial in our Microscope's settings to examine the first question:

A female scientist in a laboratory looks through a microscope.

1. Key Verbs

Taking my Green-colored pencil, I began to shade every powerful verb in Joel, most of which are appeals/commands by Joel to God's people. Here is my list of key verbs in Joel:

  • "Hear this ..."
  • "Wake up!"
  • "Weep ..."
  • "Wail ..."
  • "Mourn ..."
  • "Despair ..."
  • "Grieve ..."
  • "Put on (sackcloth) ..."
  • "Declare (a holy fast) ..."
  • "Call (a sacred assembly) ..."
  • "Cry out (to the Lord) ..."
  • "Blow trumpet ..."
  • "Sound the alarm ..."
  • "Return (now)!"
  • "Rend (your heart, not your garments) ..." (for a fun rabbit trail, here's a list of verses in the Bible that refer to someone rending/tearing their clothing as a sign of deep grief or tragic sinfulness against God: 2 Samuel 3:31; Esther 4:1; Genesis 37:29, 34; 2 Samuel 1:11-12; Job 1:19-20; Judges 11:34-35; Matthew 26:64-65; Acts 14:13-15).
  • "Return (to the Lord) ..."

It doesn't take a genius to realize God is imploring His people to wake up, turn from their sinful ways, and return to Him ... now! This is the essence of what God is saying to His people, through the book of Joel. And it's as applicable today as it was in 850 BC when it was written!

2. Key Players

But to whom is God appealing to return to Him? Who is the audience of God's many key verbs above? Here we go:

  • Elders (1:2, 1:14, 2:16)
  • All in the land (1:2, 1:14)
  • Priests (1:9, 1:13, 2:17)
  • Farmers (1:11)
  • Vine-growers (1:11)
  • The People/Assembly (2:16)
  • Children (2:16)
  • Nursing babies (2:16)
  • Grooms (2:16)
  • Brides (2:16)
Even Nursing Babies!

That list pretty much covers everyone, right? Every man, woman and child, regardless of life stage or position, is being called by God ... to return to Him. Even nursing babies! Perhaps there is some effective hyperbole by including babies? (Such as, babies are inherently dependent ... hmm). By including babies, God gets our attention and highlights the supreme importance of His appeal.

3. Key Truths about God

Finally, what does this brief book of Joel concretely tell us about God, from the words in the text? Honestly, I wasn't expecting too much here ... until I began listing them in my journal. Here's what I found (get ready!):

O Lord, You ...

  • ... communicate with mankind. (1:1)
  • ... have a "Day" ahead where You'll have your way. (1:15)
  • ... can (and apparently will) destroy. (1:15)
  • ... can be appealed to, called upon! (1:19)
  • ... have a 'holy hill' (Jerusalem). (2:1)
  • ... thunder! (2:11)
  • ... lead an 'army' of locusts. (You control nature). (2:11)
  • ... judge and discipline. (2:11)
  • ... speak directly! (2:12)
  • ... command (for our good): Return! Rend! (2:12-13)
  • ... are gracious. (2:13)
  • ... are compassionate. (2:13)
  • ... are slow to anger. (2:13)
  • ... are abounding in love. (2:13)
  • ... are willing to relent from sending calamity. (2:13)
  • ... are the source of blessing. (2:14)
  • ... are 'jealous' for Your land. (2:18)
  • ... feel pity for Your people. (2:18)
  • ... alone satisfy us, meeting our needs. (2:19)
  • ... speak to Your people. (2:19-3:8 long section)
  • ... control nature (e.g. locusts) again. (2:20)
  • ... do Great Things! (2:21-22)
  • ... give Spring and Fall rains (for crops). (2:23)
  • ... make crops grow and vines/trees produce. (2:24)
  • ... provide for our sustenance. (2:26)
  • ... alone are the only true God – there is no other! (2:27)
  • ... send the Holy Spirit to fill/indwell Your people. (2:28-29)
  • ... do wonders and miracles. (2:30)
  • ... deliver (rescue). (2:32)
  • ... will judge all, including the nations. (3:2, 3:12)
  • ... roar and thunder. (3:16)
  • ... are a 'refuge' and 'stronghold' for Your people. (3:16)
  • ... dwell in Zion (Jerusalem). (3:17)
  • ... pardon! (3:21)

By my count, that is 34 things that are true about God! What a goldmine of data about God's being and character! Worthy of meditating upon. Worthy of worshipping Him for.

Today, whether you employ your spiritual telescope or microscope to study God's Word, I recommend beginning by cleaning the optical lenses of your instrument (confession of sin and application of Jesus' death in your place). Then dive into the bottomless petri dish (microscope) or fathomless cosmos (telescope) of His Word!  Wonder awaits! Enjoy!

Bonus Suggestion for your Small Group:

If you're part of a small group at church (or elsewhere), try this: pass out one penny for each member, along with a pen and paper. Have everyone silently write down as many observations as they can from only the front-side (Lincoln's face) of the penny. After 3 minutes, have the group compare their lists.

I did this with collegians, and we found 40+ unique observations as a group, though none of us saw them all on our own. In fact, surprisingly, all of us missed the most obvious observation: the copper color of the penny!

Now, enjoy observing something far greater than a penny ... God's eternal Word!