Observation teaches you to see what the passage says and is the basis for accurate interpretation and correct application. It is vitally important to understand the context of the Scripture being studied and to not pull the words or sentences away from their true meaning. Observation answers the question, “What does the passage say?”
You don’t have to earn a degree in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic to figure out the correct context of any portion of Scripture. (It can’t hurt, either.) But it’s essential that you keep in mind that language changes over time, and that speech patterns, writing styles, communication methods differ during the course of our own lifetime, much less over 2,000 years and many, many cultural hand-offs. The observation techniques that follow allow you to glean what is being said in the proper context as you study.
Begin with Prayer
If you want to “hear” what God has to say to you personally, you really need to enter into two-way communication. Prayer begins the “conversation” and places your mind, heart and soul in the right relationship with Him.
Ask the 5 W's and an H
The hardest thing to do is ridding ourselves of assumptions when we approach God’s Word, whether it’s a book (“Revelation is nothing but symbols and allegories.”) or a familiar passage (“1 Corinthians 13 is all I need to know about ‘love.’”). Presuppositions are the most common culprits leading to wrong interpretation and misapplication. Carefully observing who, what, when, where, why and how are the best assurances leading to correct interpretation. DON’T RUSH PAST THIS. Doing this on a chapter-by-chapter basis consistently places the paragraphs, sentences, and words in their proper context.
- WHO is speaking? Who is this about? Who are the main characters? To whom is he speaking?
- WHAT is the subject or event covered in the chapter? What do you learn about the people, event, or teaching?
- WHEN do/will the events occur or did/will something happen to someone in particular?
- WHERE did or will this happen? Where was it said?
- WHY is something being said or mentioned? Why would/will this happen? Why at that time and/or to this person/people?
- HOW will it happen? How is it to be done? How is it illustrated?
Mark Key Words and Phrases
A key word or phrase is one which, when removed, leaves the passage void of meaning. They are often repeated by the author throughout a chapter or book in order to reveal the point or purpose of the writing.
However you decide to mark such things in your Bible, determine to be consistent in your use of colors, symbols, or a combination of both throughout in order to capture important themes that transcend just a single passage of Scripture. (e.g. “love”, “covenant”, “sin”, “grace”, etc.)
Pay attention to pronouns (“he”, “she”, “we”, “they”, “I”, “you”, “it”, “our”, etc.) as they often indicate a change of direction or emphasis. (e.g., when it changes from “He” says to “you” say.) And note synonyms which are different ways of referring to the same person, place, or thing. For instance, there are many names for “God”, several names for “Jerusalem”, and so on. These often hint at different character traits of the same entity, trying to teach us a little more about it.
Look for Lists
Trivia Time: In movies, books and everyday speech people often refer to “The Seven Deadly Sins” – where did that come from? One of Paul’s epistles. (Looking it up would be good for you.) Lists are often additional words used to describe a key word, but are also what is said about someone or something or related thoughts/instructions grouped together.
Lists are something you should develop as you study a particular topic throughout the Bible such as “grace”. Listing the characteristics of grace as provided by each use throughout Scripture will provide you with a much broader view of the whole meaning of grace. Such a list allows you see the bigger picture and avoid incorrectly interpreting it on the basis of just one Scripture in and of itself. Lists are the building blocks to developing something usually described in the much more intimidating terms “doctrine” and “theology”.
Yes, keeping lists of the important topics provides you with the basis for personalizing doctrines and theologies that follow from studying a theme across the entire Bible. Essentially you are placing the foundation layers of your faith into their right and proper context.
Watch for Contrasts and Comparisons
A contrast is a comparison of things that are different or opposite, such as light/darkness, proud/humble, good/evil. The word but often indicates a contrast to something just stated.
A comparison points out similarities and is most often indicated in the use of words such as like, as, as it were.
These small words are great eye-openers in the process of observation as they set the words on either side of them into their proper context.
Identify Terms of Conclusion\
Wherefore, therefore, for this reason, and finally are terms of conclusion that usually follow an important thought in order to tell you how to personally apply the teaching. They’re a bridge between the “teaching” and the “application” and often clearly spell out the proper meaning and context of the passage with no guesswork as to what it means.
Develop Your Own Chapter Themes
The printed chapter themes in most Bibles are more of an aid for finding a specific story or passage such as “Jesus Heals a Blind Man”; they’re not very descriptive of the spiritual topic or theme that reveal the lessons God is directing to your heart. (You may have come across the technical name for these sections as a "pericope".) Nearly every Bible translation is available without such markings, usually in a “wide margin” edition conducive to making personal notes. The New Inductive Study Bible by Harvest House Publishers, for instance, builds this into several versions and even provides a place at the end of every book to record your personal chapter headings in order to see patterns and development of themes. But this can also easily be maintained on a separate sheet of paper.
Note Expressions of Time
This is often the most-overlooked part of observation. A crucial part of attaining the correct context is understanding when something has/is/will happen.
Time is often directly indicated such as “during the reign of”, “on the tenth day”, “at the feast of”, etc., etc. Sometimes the context is as much about when, or its relationship to a past or present event, as it is the person, place, or thing mentioned.
Pay attention to words such as until, then, when, and after as they reveal the relationship of one event to another. This is of particular importance when studying the Gospels as you will begin to see that Jesus’ acts and miracles are often an extension of the teaching He gave just before or after them. Throughout the Bible these words help connect actions with teaching in the proper context.
These are the fundamentals and, to be sure, there are added guidelines for the proper observation applied to some of the different types of literature provided throughout the Bible such as psalms, songs, parables, allegories, etc. But this will serve as the baseline throughout. Proper observation takes the guesswork out of interpretation and application. As stated previously, don’t rush through observation because you want to get to interpretation or application more quickly. The latter are only properly achieved through patient and thorough observation.