Surveying a Text
To see the "big picture" of a biblical text, you will want to be able to do three things. First, you will want to be able to tell where one line of thought ends and another begins throughout the book or section you are "surveying." Second, you will want to describe the way each major thought flows into the next. Finally, you want to be able to see themes that run throughout the book or section of a book.
The first skill amounts to being able to outline the book (or section of a book). Can you observe places where the author is moving on to a new thought? For example, Romans 12:1 says, "Therefore, I encourage you, brothers [and sisters], to present your bodies as a living sacrifice..." Do you have the skill of observation to see that Paul is now moving on to a new section of Romans and a new train of thought? In terms of the big picture, we are talking about big "blocks" of thought. So in Romans, 1:18-11:36 seems to be one big unit of thought. Then 12:1 through 15:13 is another big "block" of thought. A good observer of Romans should be able to breakdown its overall argument into big blocks of thought (which can then be broken down even further).
The second skill in surveying is then to see how big blocks of text like these connect to each other. So we have observed that Romans 12:1 starts a new section of Romans. Do you have the skill to observe that there is a "cause-effect" relationship between the first and second major parts of Romans? Because of what Paul has taught in the first half, therefore, the second half follows.
Here are some of the main ways that two blocks of thought can flow from one to the other:
1. The first can prepare or lay the background for what follows in a very general way. The birth stories in Matthew and Luke prepare for what follows in this sort of way.
2. The two blocks of thought can compare or contrast. So the alternating stories of David and Saul tend to contrast with each other.
3. The first can be general and the second go into the particulars or details. It can also go the other way around: the first can be the particulars and the second generalize what has gone before. So if a book of the Bible has key verses, they can be a general statement that the rest of the book plays out (like Acts 1:8).
4. The first can "lead" to the second in a number of different ways. So it can be a fairly straightforward cause that leads to an effect. So after Pentecost, all sorts of miracles and boldness start to happen. But ideas can follow from other ideas in an argument as well. So in Romans the practical "preaching" of Romans 12-15 follows from the more theoretical "teaching" of Romans 1-11.
5. Some specialized "cause-effect" patterns are the movement from problem to solution or from question to answer. Much of Romans is structured by questions and answers.
But themes can also run throughout a book or part of a book. A good observer can thus see recurrences. So in Philippians, the themes of rejoicing and unity recur. But the kinds of patterns we mentioned above can also recur. So Hebrews is full of recurring contrasts between Christ and various figures from the Old Testament.
A person might thus "survey" a whole book of the Bible or a smaller block within a book by following these steps:
1. Get a sense of the content of the book or section.
- You might read through it in one sitting two or three times (admittedly, this gets harder the bigger the book--but you would be amazed how much you gain from a skim through Isaiah).
- You might give a title to each chapter just to get a sense of what's there.
2. Outline the book or section.
- Be sure to look for big blocks of thought, not just 10 smaller ones.
3. Observe how these big blocks connect with each other.
4. Observe any themes or patterns that run throughout the whole book or section.
Now you know how to observe a large amount of biblical text.
Observing in Detail
If you really want to hone in on the meaning of a verse or a small amount of text, you will want to develop your skills at observing the details of the text. It is very difficult to do this with an English translation because the details of an English translation will rarely capture all the details of the other language. So a pastor once made a side point from the word at in the KJV translation of Titus 2:5, which speaks of young women being "keepers at home." But this is only one word in Greek--there is no Greek word for "at" there.
So the best you can do for detailed observation in English is to get as good a "formal equivalence" translation as you can. These are versions like the New American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, or the English Standard Version. The New King James Version is also a good formal equivalence translation, especially if you are the places where its wording is not as original.
There are different ways to write down your observations. So you can make two columns and put the text on the one side and your observations on the other. You might go level by level: first you might observe from sentence to sentence, then from clause to clause, then from phrase to phrase, then from word to word. You might even have a third column to put crucial questions down that you might follow up on in interpretation.
Another method is to photocopy a verse and then draw all kinds of circles, squares, underlines, etc... with lines leading to observations you write down all around the page. You might then have two columns on the back of the page, the one side with your most interesting observations and the other with your most significant questions.
Sometimes the text of the Bible can become so familar to us that we miss obvious but significant details. That is one of the benefits of making yourself observe everything about the text that you can think of--even the blatantly obvious. This is also one of the benefits of reading the Bible in its original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. Reading in a foreign language forces you to slow down and pay attention to the details in a way you might not otherwise do. Suddenly you stop to observe the word "but" and immediately recognize that something is being contrasted with something else. You observe important connecting words like "therefore," "for," "because," "in order that," "but," etc... You observe the kinds of relationships between thought that we mentioned above (cause-effect, general-particular, contrast, etc...).