The What & How of Exegesis
Before we start, you should have a few things close at hand. Exegesis is a more intensive method of Bible study than others we’ve looked at and actually incorporates some of those other methods. These resources can be purchased from Amazon, Parasource, or your local book store, and some – like the Strong’s Concordance – can even be accessed through Bible apps or the public domain.
These are the resources I used:
- Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
- New Testament Bible History Handbook by H. Richard Hester
- Grasping God’ Word by Duvall & Hays
- Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible (specifically the book of 1 Timothy)
I would strongly recommend you get a copy of the first and third items on that list for yourself, but for the Bible handbook, there are a number that you can choose from so I’ll give you a bit of a guideline. You’re looking for a handbook that is historically accurate and doesn’t dive too deeply into the theology of things. Not that theology isn’t important, of course, but I’ve found handbooks to be most helpful when they focus on the socio-cultural aspect of the book I’m studying.
When you’re starting out with a passage that you plan to study exegetically, you need to keep in mind that you’re looking to pull something out of the text – it’s full meaning – not read or interpret something into the text (hence the prefix, ex-). Before you put pen to paper, you need to discard your preconceptions and what you’ve heard from this or that preacher or teacher. Human beings are fallible and we get things wrong all the time. Don’t rely on other people’s interpretations of this or that but instead dig in and see what God has to say.
The New Testament church of Berea had this reputation…
“And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:10-11)
Even Paul had to be vetted! They checked everything he taught them against the copies of Scripture that were available to them (possibly the books of the law in the Old Testament and some New Testament letters/epistles). They wanted to make sure they were getting the truth, and nothing else. We, too, should be this discerning.
Not everything that sounds good, is good.
Beginning – Observation
When you’re ready to start your study and you’ve checked your preconceptions at the door, you’ll want to write out the passage on as many pages as necessary. Leave about an inch or more between each line so that you have ample space for writing. Try not to keep your letters too snug together, either.
Once you’ve got that, you want to read the entire book or chapter of the passage over several times as a whole, and then begin focusing on one sentence or even phrase at a time. Without having the literary context of the verses you’re studying, you may still misinterpret what you read. You need to know what they were saying before and after the passage you’re studying.
Next, observe, observe, observe! The idea is that you want to notice every little thing about the passage. Your time in English class is going to serve you well here.
Look for everything and anything and keep these questions in your mind.
- What is the subject of the passage? Is it a person, thing, or abstract (i.e. a virtue or practice)?
- What are the verbs? Are they active (doing the action) or passive (being acted upon)?
- What are the descriptors? (Adjectives and adverbs, they play an important role in all literature.)
And anything else you can notice is for your benefit. No detail is too small or insignificant.
Create a colour code and highlight your verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, prepositions, phrases, so that they stand out and you can see exactly how they’re interacting with one another. Draw arrows from subject to verb, so you know who’s doing what. Circle each time an instruction is given or a virtue is explained. Pick the passage apart until it looks like a jumbled mess of colours, arrows, circles, and underlines!
It may seem unnecessary to pay such close attention, but if the language was irrelevant then God would have communicated His Word for us in some other way. He didn’t, and we need to understand the words that He used and how He used them.
In my study on 1 Timothy 6:17-19, the passage begins with, “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy…”.
In my observations I can see that Paul (writer) is giving Timothy (recipient) an imperative (command) to pass along to someone.
- Who is the command for? “…them that are rich in this world…”
- What is the command? That they are not highminded, and that they do not trust in their wealth but in God.
And what is the significance of trusting wealth versus trusting God?
Paul emphasizes the character of wealth – “uncertain riches” – and contrasts that against the character of God – “the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy…”. And the passage goes on to elaborate the imperative and expand on how they are to demonstrate that.
Paul tells them to do good works, give generously to others (i.e. the poor, the church, etc.), and to thereby lay a foundation that will last beyond this temporary life.
Now, if I hadn’t read the context of the passage, and just skipped down past the first part, I could easily have concluded that God just wants rich people to do good works. But in the context, Paul was talking about servants and slaves serving their masters just as they would serve God, and for masters to avoid the love of money but rather to practice contentment. He then encourages Timothy to pursue things that have eternal value which leads into the command for Timothy to give to those with earthly wealth.
The Holy Spirit isn’t just picking on the rich, but is addressing everyone through Paul’s letter to Timothy.
Okay, that’s it for how to get started.
Why don’t you grab a notebook, your resources, and your Bible and try for yourself? If you’re unsure whether you’ll do it right, don’t let that hold you back! We all have to start somewhere and the best way to learn is by doing. You cannot fail at this, and the more often you grab your shovel and dig, the stronger those muscles will become and the easier it is.
You’ll be amazed at how the same passage can seem to yield more every time you go over it.
Comment below if you’ve tried this and how it’s going. I’d love to hear from you!