The What & How of Exegesis
Looking at The Context
How many times have you said or typed something to someone and felt that the recipient of your words had completely misunderstood what you meant?
It’s probably happened to all of us at some point or another, and it is a very frustrating experience. It can lead to conflict, emotional injury, and even hurt one or both parties’ spiritual health. Words carry an enormous power and what we say can bring life or great harm (Proverbs 18:21).
A crucial part of our communication with words, though, is the context. How you say something and the conversation before/after will inform our audience. It is exactly the same with the Bible and exegetical study. The context of the whole Bible, the specific Testament (Old or New), the book, chapter, and surrounding verses will inform your passage.
In Ephesians chapter four you’ll see that verse twenty-six says, “Be ye angry…“. If I struggled with explosive anger, I could point to this and say that anger isn’t sinful at all and use the verse to support my argument. However, when you keep reading there’s a caveat – “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the Devil.” Once we have the immediate context, it’s clear that anger itself may not be a sin, but holding onto anger or acting on that anger (unless it is righteous indignation for the sake of the Lord) is wrong.
All that to say, context is absolutely crucial. And this is the second step of exegetical study.
Beginning here helps us to take off those glasses of preconception that have a habit of sneaking back on.
Find a good Bible handbook that will give you the meat and potatoes of the cultural history of the time in which the book was written and about the people who wrote/received it. It may be interesting to know the history of the Indigenous peoples of Australia at the time that Paul wrote his letters to Timothy, but it wouldn’t do me a lot of good in my study of those letters. I need to look at the writer and his background/culture and the background/culture of Timothy, the original audience.
The reason this is so important is because the books of the Bible are actual historical texts written by actual people and to actual people. The writers had real audiences that were alive in the days that they were writing, and we have to examine Scripture with this in mind because it does matter.
Questions to keep in mind:
- What year was this written?
- Who wrote it? What was their background?
- Who received it? What was their background?
- For what purpose was it written?
- Where was it written and in what circumstance?
Now, when you’re looking at the literary context, you’re looking a little deeper than just the history. Here you want to know all the little details of the passage itself and the immediate and broader contexts. It’s important to really read to understand rather than just reading to take in the information.
Here are some questions to help you with that.
- What is the theme of the whole book of my passage?
- What type of writing is the book/my passage? (i. e. poetry, prophecy, law, historical record, letter, psalm, etc.)
- What does the writer talk about in the chapter my passage is in?
- What is the immediate context telling me about the intent of my passage?
- What are the themes of this passage and its chapter?
The theme and purpose of the book your passage is in is very significant. The book of James is an example that comes to mind.
A lot of people have a hard time with James because they read it over once or twice and assume that James is talking about earning salvation. However, this contradicts the rest of the Bible, and especially the New Testament, where we are told over and over again that we are redeemed by grace through faith alone, and nothing else (Ephesians 2:8-9).
However, when we approach the book of James with the understanding that James is speaking to the practical ways that we work out our faith through good works, the way that faith bears practical fruit, we will see the book in a whole new way.
The first perspective will lead us away from truth, and the second will lead us into truth. Both paths have significant consequences.
Now that you have your first two steps in exegetical study, making observations and examining the contexts, why don’t you select a passage for your own study? I hope you can see that it’s really not nearly as hard as it may have seemed at first. With a good handbook and a commentary (or two or five), you can begin to take off those presumptive glasses we all wear and see a deeper layer to God’s Word. You can begin to understand that many mysteries contained in this wonderful book.
I promise that it will not disappoint!