Studying the Bible can seem like an enormous and daunting task. You want to know what God’s Word says, but where do you start? Scot Keen is a professer here at New Tribes Bible Institute, and has spent countless hours breaking down the Bible and exploring different ways to study it. He teaches several classes, one of which is Hermeneutics, where students learn to study and interpret the Bible. Here are a few tips he has for anyone who wants to understand God’s Word as accurately as possible:
The Bible is a BIG book! How do you even begin to study? How can you know if your conclusions are accurate? I suggest four simple steps using the book of Ruth as an example.
1. What is the Historical/Cultural Context?
Read the book through while focusing on the Historical/Cultural context. This includes any information you can find out about:
(A) The Author – who wrote the book, when was it written, and why?
(B) The Audience – who was the book written to, what was the situation that they faced, and how was the book supposed to impact them?
The book of Ruth takes place “in the days when the judges ruled (1:1).” That is historical information that helps us understand the book. The time period of the judges was characterized by a cycle of sin, judgment, repentance, deliverance, etc. We are also told that, “there was a famine in the land (1:1).” Historically, Israel was under the Mosaic Covenant. Under this arrangement, God said He would bless Israel if she obeyed God but curse her if she disobeyed (Deut. 28). Only one verse into the book and we know where Israel is at in the cycle of sin and judgment. She is being disciplined by God for her disobedience.
2. What is the Literary Context?
Words have meaning in their context. How do your verses fit in with the larger flow of thought in the book?
In order to grasp the literary context, you’ll want to read several chapters of a Biblical book to catch the flow of thought. Ruth may appear to be a story about a guy and a gal who meet, fall in love and get married…
But the literary context gives us the proper perspective.
As the time period of the Judges grew towards a close, Israel began to desire a king to rule over them. Finally, God gave them King Saul, who was an utter failure. He was replaced by King David. The book of Ruth begins in the period of the Judges but it ends with a genealogy of King David. Thus it was written after David became king. The literary structure of the book lets us know that the story isn’t ultimately about Ruth and Boaz. Based on the conclusion of the book, we understand that It’s about God’s sovereignty and providential activity to bring about the king of His choice. God was graciously at work towards that end even when Israel was living in rebellion!
3. How Should I Interpret this Passage?
After you’ve grasped the context (historical, cultural, and literary), take time to write a short summary of each section (e.g. paragraph if it is historical narrative, paragraph for Epistles, etc.) that explains what the section meant to the original audience. Since you know the background and situation of the audience, you can see the book through their eyes and grasp what it meant to them.
After you’ve done this, grab a couple of commentaries and validate your conclusions. The book of Ruth did several things for the original audience. Most significantly, it validated David as the King of Israel. But it also reminded them that God is sovereign and active in history to accomplish His purposes and keep His promises. God had promised that the Kingship would be in Judah’s clan (Genesis 49). In the book of Ruth, we see God active in history to bring a descendant of Judah to the throne of Israel.
4. How Should I Apply this Passage?:
Interpretation is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. The end goal is a transformed life by the Spirit and word of God. Application is the part of the process where we walk in the truth of God’s word.
To arrive at solid application, we begin by asking what the text meant to the original audience (interpretation). Then we identify the timeless principles in that text. To find the principles, we focus on the similarities between ourselves and the original audience. Like Israel, we too are God’s people. God is actively at work in our day to accomplish His will in history and we can trust Him to do that. To validate our principles, we focus on the differences between ourselves and the Biblical audience.
Are we under the same covenant? Israel was under the Mosaic covenant, but the church is not under that arrangement. God doesn’t send famine when the church disobeys His word. Those are differences. A principle that we could articulate from Ruth is this: God is sovereign and providentially at work in History to accomplish His purposes. That was true in Ruth’s day and it is true in ours. Then we apply that principle: Whenever we cannot see what God is doing, we must trust in the fact that He is faithful to His promises and He is at work in in history and in the lives of His people.
By following these four steps, we can approach God’s word with a sense of excitement and confidence, while trusting God to use His word to change us from the inside out.