When it comes to Bible study, we are typically quick to jump to interpretation and application, having rushed through (or even bypassed) the initial step of observation. That is, observing what the passage actually says. But how can you properly understand and apply a passage if you have not grasped what it says first? You might think you know what it says, but do you? Slow down. It is really easy to overlook things or make assumptions – especially if you have a familiarity with the text.
Think of Sherlock Holmes or certain TV crime detective shows. The best crime solver is often using the power of observation. They take notice of details that other people overlook. The careful examination of a crime scene has become the modern day field of forensic science. This can illustrate the importance of observation for us. The lack of it when studying the Bible can lead to misunderstanding and misapplication of the text.
A few years ago I led several Bible studies using John Stott guides on books of the Bible. (I really liked these guides.) Each lesson would take you carefully through the passage with questions that required looking closely at the verses. By the time you reached the end of the passage, it had come to life! The careful observations had brought out what the passage was communicating, and then the lesson would end with application.
But some participants struggled and found the Stott guides difficult. They seemed accustomed to “Bible studies” where you read a passage and then jump to general discussion questions about what you think, feel, etc. Questions that could be answered with a superficial glance at the verses, seemingly more designed to create discussion for the sake of discussion.
More recently, in preparing some of my own lessons to teach, I began with observational questions to draw out what the passage was stating. Again, I found some people were not quite expecting this and were even a bit stumped – the questions were not hard but simply required a thoughtful look at the verses.
What if the police arrived at a crime scene, gave it a quick glance, and then proceeded to try and solve the crime? That doesn’t make sense, does it? They will have overlooked valuable clues by failing to properly observe the scene. Yet, why do we do this with so called “Bible study”? I put Bible study in quotes because I think too much of what we call Bible study is more like vague spiritual discussion. (Don’t get me wrong – properly guided discussion can be valuable – but not when we have forgotten the point of it.)
I’m also not presenting observation as “magic”! Despite detailed observation, there will still be challenging passages that are difficult to properly interpret and apply. And of course, no one’s observations can be completely objective as we all come to the table with preconceived ideas.
In closing, I’ll share with you how the importance of observation was drilled into me. It was the infamous Acts 1:8 assignment for my Bible hermeneutics class. We had to come up with 25 observations about that one verse, and only that verse. We could not take the surrounding verses into consideration and it had to be straight observation, not interpretation or application. Then there was infamous part 2 of the assignment where you had to come up with 25 more observations about the verse!! Yes, 25 more! Ugh! It was very tough, but it was amazing how many observations you could come up with when forced too. Yes, not all of the observations were relevant and some a bit silly but it was a valuable lesson.
A blogging friend of mine has a series of posts on how to study the Bible for yourself. Check out her first post here: Studying the Bible for Yourself: Introduction.