One of the most important skills that we must learn to become proficient Bible students is the skill of observation. Many times, we don’t do a good job observing when we study the word of God because we simply don’t know that we should be observing attentively. Others know that they should observe but they don’t know what they should be looking for. This chapter will provide you with all the information that you need to become proficient in observation so that you can begin to see things that you didn’t see before when you read or studied the Word of God.
What is observation?
Observation of a Bible passage means that as you read you look at the text carefully, examining it and asking the question, “what does the Bible say in this passage?” Observing the text means to perceive, notice, inspect closely, regard with attention, or to take note so as to see or learn what it is saying. As in science, observing a Bible passage includes making findings and recording those findings.
There are two ways to observe something: passively or actively. Active observation involves interrogating the passage and writing down findings. Active observation means you are actively involved and actively participating in an ongoing dialogue between you and the text. You speak to the text and the text speaks back to you. It is a dynamic process. Passive observation is what most people do. The merely read the text. After they are done, if you ask them what is says, they hardly remember what they have read.
Here is what some experts have said about observation:
“It is only when truth is discovered that it is appropriated. When a man is simply told the truth, it remains external to him and he can quite easily forget it. When he is led to discover the truth himself it becomes an integral part of him and he never forgets.” —William Barclay.
“You can see a lot by just looking” Yogi Berra
“It shall greatly help thee to understand scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and unto whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstance, considering what goeth before, and what followeth after.” John Wycliffe, scholar and Bible translator.
“A young man came to a professor to study ichthyology. The professor gave him a fish to study and told him to come back to get another lesson when he had mastered that fish. After some time the young man came back and told the professor what he had discovered about the fish. When he had finished, to his surprise, he was given the same fish again and told to study it further. He came back again, have observed new facts about the fish. But again he was given the same fish to study; and so it went on, lesson after lesson, until that student had been taught what his perceptive faculties were for and also how to do thorough work. We ought to study the Bible in the same way. We ought to come back to the same verse of the Bible again and again until we have gotten, as far as it is possible to us, all that is in the verse.” Dr. R. A. Torrey
How do you observe the text?
Begin with Prayer: All Bible study must be done prayerfully and relying on the Holy Spirit for interpretation and revelation of God’s word.
We read and reread the text over several times. Use different translations to read. When you are using passage analysis as part of the comprehensive Book Study Method, then the reading you do under Book Survey would be sufficient for this. But if you are using passage analysis as part of chapter analysis or verse by verse analysis, then you need to read the passage over and over at least 7 or eight times.
Carefully examine the text and let it speak for itself. As you read, look at every detail with your full attention, taking notice of everything you see as you read slowly through the text. As you do, fix your mind upon the text, examine each paragraph, each sentence, each verse, and each word and write any findings that you make. You are answering the question, what does the text say? Note that observation and seeing are two different things. Observation is perceiving what you are seeing so that you become mentally aware. Many people see something but they don’t observe. You can have a tree in your front yard but not know how many branches it has or what the shape and texture of the leaves are, yet you pass under it everyday. You pass and see it everyday, but you have never stopped to observe. When you observe, you will stop and take in the color of the leaves, the shape of the leaves, the height of the tree, the girth of the stem etc. You remember what you have observed. What you have observed makes an imprint, neuronal tracks in your brain that builds long-term memory. You forget what you only see. Many of us usually forget what we read in the Bible because we don’t observe it, we only see. As we observe, it is crucial that we do so with an open mind, a heart that is teachable and that is surrendered to God—willing to obey everything he reveals. This is crucial because we must allow the Bible to speak for itself without introducing any bias. If we observe with preconceived ideas that we don’t want to let go, we will not see anything new. During observation, we must also slow down and not try to rush through the Bible. Observing the text during Bible study would take time. Don’t rush it.
“Observation demands concentration! The purpose of observation is to saturate yourself thoroughly with the content of the passage. Like a sponge you should absorb everything that is before you” Oletta Wald.
Record your observations. One big difference between Bible study and Bible Reading is writing. We haven’t studied the Bible until we have written. When we observe, we must do so with a pen or pencil in our hands. It is crucial to record everything finding that you make. A short pencil is better than a long memory!
Establish context. Make sure you maintain both historical context and textual context as you read. Context refers to the words or sentences that come before and after the portion you are reading. In other words, context is the setting in which the text occurs. The context usually influences the meaning or effect of the text.
Interrogate the text. Begin your interrogation of the text by asking observational questions using the 5Ws and 1H. You ask Why, What, Who, When, Where, and How questions about different aspects of each verse. Journalists use these 5Ws, and 1H to write comprehensive news articles. They are helpful in proper observation while studying the Bible.
In addition to the 5Ws, and 1H, please consider the following as you read the text.
Sections of the Bible: The Old Testament is divided five sections: 1) Law (Pentateuch), 5 books from Genesis to Deuteronomy; 2) History, 12 books from Joshua to Esther; 3) Wisdom, 5 books from Job to Song of Solomon; 4) Major Prophets, 5 books from Isaiah to Daniel; and 5) Minor Prophets, 12 books from Hosea to Malachi. And the New Testament is divided into five major sections: 1) Foundational Books, 5 books which are the 4 gospels plus Acts; 2) The Letters (Epistles), which are 21 books (2/3 of them by Paul); 3) Prophesy, 1 book which is the Revelation of Jesus Christ. In which section is your book located?
Type of Literature: What is the type of Literature or genre? Is it poetry (like Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.), a personal letter (epistle), apocalypse, historical, biographical, prophetic, or a combination.
Principal divisions: Many versions of the Bible have paragraph divisions, which represent units of thought. There are also chapter divisions and main divisions or principal divisions, which span several chapters. You may even be able to further divide the paragraph divisions where subdivisions can be detected. What are the principal divisions in your passage?
Illustrations: The bible often uses vivid imagery as a way to focus attention on a difficult abstract idea. E.g. Jesus’ parables use such imagery to teach profound lessons. Sometimes, the Bible gives an interpretation to these parables or illustrations. Sometimes it doesn’t. To interpret illustrations that are not interpreted, we must be careful to make sure we understand the imagery and the principles that the Bible teaches for interpreting them. What are the illustrations?
Repetition: In modern day English, if a person wants to emphasize something, he can capitalize it, use a larger font, bold it, italicize it, underline it, or write it in red or some other color. In Biblical Hebrew, when someone wanted to emphasize something, he often repeated it. A common way of repeating something is to use a parallelism where he presents the same idea in two or three different ways. Besides helping to emphasize, this repetition also helps to enhance understanding. That’s why you see Jesus saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” That’s also why you see some events described in several gospel accounts (e.g. in Matthew, Mark, Luke and even John). We need to pay attention to these repetitions both in the Old Testament and New Testament. Even though the language of the NT was Greek. Most of it was written by Jews who though wrote Greek had a Hebrew thought pattern. What repetitions do you notice in your passage?
Mark Keywords and Key phrases: What are the keywords in your passage? Which words are repeated throughout the text? Which of these repeated words are vital to the understanding of the text so that the text will lose meaning if they were removed? These vital and repeated words are keywords. Mark keywords and key phrases.
Focus on the Obvious: As you observe, remember to look for the obvious things: people, places, events, and keywords
Observe the links: To properly observe the scriptures, we must take note of the links between paragraphs (or units of thought). Look at what author Jean Rutherford says about the importance of observing links.
“Too often Scripture is regarded as a ragbag of individual texts rather than material which is close-knit, with definite growth and development of ideas from one passage to the next, or from one book to the next. Scripture is a growing tree rather than a mosaic of unconnected elements.” What are some of the links you should observe? Most of these links are going to be conjunctions or connecting words. They may include words of explanation, contrast, comparison, Cause, Condition, Concession, conclusion, and chronology (expressions of time). Here are some of the links to note. Review the appendix on conjunctions for more details.
Observe Conjunctions or connecting Words
Cause: for this reason; in order that; as, because; because of this; therefore; thus; hence; as a result, consequently; since; so; so that; why
Condition: if, unless; if … then; in that case; that being so
Addition: and, also, in addition, not only … but also, moreover, further, furthermore, plus, besides.
Comparison: As, Also, Just as, Like, Likewise, More, More than, So as, So also, Too; in the same way; both.
Contrast: although; but; but rather; except; even though; on the other hand; on the contrary; in contrast; however; much more; nevertheless; only; otherwise; whereas; yet; even so; in spite of; instead; instead of; still, neither … nor.
Concession: though, although, despite, in spite of, notwithstanding, whereas, while, even though.
Emphasis: indeed; in fact; only
Replacement: or, or else, alternatively, either;
Exemplification: for example, for instance, to illustrate this, such as.
Restatement: that is, to put it another way, in other words, to sum up, in brief.
Chronology (Time): after; afterward (s); as soon as; at that time; later; soon; until; when; as; before; now; then; until; when; while; previously, prior to, up ‘til now, to the present, at present, first; second(ly); third(ly); finally; first and foremost; next.
Explanation: For, Now, so, so then
Place or Position: At, In, On, Over, Where, Wherever, whence, whither
Purpose: for this purpose; in order that; so that; that; then, therefore; thus
When you see “therefore” always ask, what is therefore there for? Do the same this for all the conjunctions of cause.
Summarize the text. We can summarize the text by any of the following methods:
1) Write an outline sketch of the Book (this is best when you have done an overview study).
2) Doing a detailed outline of the text (this is best after a detailed analysis of the text, as with a book synthesis)
2) Write a summary in composition form in a few paragraphs.