The Bible is a considerably large and complex book. Although it all points to a single person, the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ, and has unifying themes like the kingdom of God that run through out, it’s not a simple book. The simple good news of Christ dying and rising from the dead for sinners is to be received like a child (Mark 10:15), but the many ways in which that message is portrayed are neither simple nor childish. Unlike most other books, it is not composed of a single genre or written by a single author, but in includes many different genres written by many different authors. Add to that the fact that its various parts were written in different cultures and time periods from our own, and it’s only realistic to expect to come across parts of the Bible that are difficult to understand and interpret.
In some cases we might not understand what’s being said at all. In others, we might understand what a sentence or paragraph is saying, but have trouble understanding the deeper meaning or the reason that God inspired the words to be written. When, while reading a part of the Bible, we realize we don’t understand the meaning of what we are reading, we can do one of two things. 1) Keep going and not worry about it. 2) Do some work to try to figure it out. If we choose option two, we again have at least a couple ways of going about our work. A) We can find what someone else has written and read their thoughts. B) We can try to unearth the meaning by relying on the Holy Spirit and studying our Bible. Much could be said here about the pros and cons of both options, but discussing that is not my reason for writing this. For the majority of my Christian life I have either moved on past sections of Scripture that I didn’t understand without trying to figure them out or I found what someone else wrote and considered their view. In some cases though, I have tried to learn the meaning of a Biblical text through doing my own study. Doing so has been rewarding and I’ve learned a little bit along the way and want to share some of that.
Just to state the obvious, Bible study, like other intellectual pursuits, is work. Picture it as being a miner, who by the sweat of his brow, beats upon the rock in the heart of the earth until it gives way and a precious gem is found.
“Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold that they refine. Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from the ore. Man puts an end to darkness and searches out to the farthest limit the ore in gloom and deep darkness. He opens shafts in a valley away from where anyone lives; they are forgotten by travelers; they hang in the air, far away from mankind; they swing to and fro. As for the earth, out of it comes bread, but underneath it is turned up as by fire. Its stones are the place of sapphires, and it has dust of gold. (Job 28:1-6)
In my reading through the Bible, I just finished the book of Ezekiel. There are some parts that I have had difficulty understanding and connecting to the rest of the Bible, so I want to share with you one specific example of how I have worked to gain more insight and understanding into a passage.
But first, just a little bit of background for those of you who are not familiar with the book. Ezekiel is a book of prophecy that contains written accounts of different visions that Ezekiel had as well as the words that the LORD spoke to him. Ezekiel begins many of his prophesies with something like, “In the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me”(Ezekiel 24:1). The opening words of the book give us something of an introduction.
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the LORD was upon him there. (Ezekiel 1:1-3)
Ezekiel is among the exiles of Judah in the land of Babylon, the home of the Chaldeans (Isaiah 13:19). God had judged their idolatry by using the kingdom of the Chaldeans to ransack Jerusalem and take away its people as slaves (2 Chronicles 36:17). Ezekiel was one who was taken, so he’s prophesying the Word of the Lord to his fellow Hebrews as they are under Babylonian captivity. He was a priest (Ezekiel 1:3) and a prophet (Ezekiel 2:4-5). He prophesied judgement on Israel (Ezekiel 6:3) and judgment on other nations like Tyre and Egypt (Ezekiel 28:2, 29:2). He also prophesied about the new covenant that God would make with his people (Ezekiel 16:60, 37:26) that was purchased through Christ’s offering of himself (Matthew 26:28, Luke 22:20).
So fast forward and I’m reading through the last part of the book and Ezekiel has visions of a new temple (Ezekiel 40-43) where the God of Israel is going to dwell in the midst of his people forever (Ezekiel 43:7). After reading that section I had some questions that I wanted to answer:
1. Is this temple going to exist on the new earth forever or were the visions of it symbolic in order to communicate something?
2. Depending on your answer to #1, what is the purpose of the temple if it’s going to physically exist with its sacrifices (Ezekiel 46:6) or what is the symbolic temple representing and why?
3. Who is this prince spoken of in Ezekiel 44:3; 45:7, 17, 22; 46:2)? Is he literally going to do these things one day like offer a sin offering for himself (Ezekiel 45:22) or is he also a symbolic figure meant to teach us something?
Rather than do the work for you and tell you my answers, which would be the same thing as taking option B above, I am going to let you do the work if you want to. And I don’t have all the answers when it comes to difficult parts of the Bible, but I know there are useful tools to grab onto if you are someone wanting to search its glorious caverns for treasure. One of those is doing a word search.
Doing a word search is nothing new. Even before the days of computers people were able to see all the uses of a single word or phrase in the Bible with a concordance. Now that we have computers and websites like ESV Bible, word searching can be done faster and with perfect accuracy.
Here’s a sample word search I did to get you started: “Prince” in Ezekiel”
Notice how there’s options to customize your search. You can choose to search the entire Bible, just one of the Testaments, or a single book if you’d like. You can sort the results according to relevance or reference (which will put them in the order that they appear in the Bible).
Searching a key word in a verse that you’re having trouble with will likely shed more light on that verse by showing you all the other occurrences of that same word. Not always, but often, you’ll find the same thing is talked about elsewhere and by combining the two or more verses, you’ll get a better idea of what the Bible is saying.
Here’s a story from Martin Luther’s life to illustrate:
“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. Later I read Augustine’s The Spirit and the Letter, where contrary to hope I found that he, too, interpreted God’s righteousness in a similar way, as the righteousness with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although this was heretofore said imperfectly and he did not explain all things concerning imputation clearly, it nevertheless was pleasing that God’s righteousness with which we are justified was taught. Armed more fully with these thoughts, I began a second time to interpret the Psalter. And the work would have grown into a large commentary, if I had not again been compelled to leave the work begun, because Emperor Charles V in the following year convened the diet at Worms.49 (Luther’s Works, Volume 34, Pgs. 336-337).”
Not only was Mr. Luther able to do a word search through the entire Bible from memory (praise God we have computers to do that cause I can’t!) but he was a man who didn’t just let things go when he didn’t understand, but he “beat” upon them night and day until they gave way to understanding and delight. And once a solid conclusion like the meaning of “the righteousness of God” was reached, he then interpreted other parts of the Bible with it, and by combining all of them, was able to see more clearly the doctrine of justification by faith.
I don’t want to end without mentioning the importance of prayer in all Bible study. The Bible is a spiritual book (1 Corinthians 2:13) with hidden meaning (Matthew 11:25, 13:34-35), and we need the Holy Spirit to rightly understand it, and having understood it, to love what we see. So let’s pray before, during, and after our study of the Bible, asking for help and thanking him for what we receive.
May we do our best to present ourselves to God as ones approved, workers who have no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)