Exegesis is a pretty big word, isn’t it? Maybe you’ve heard it before and you’re wondering what it could possibly mean. How does it apply to studying the Bible and growing in our walk with God? Is it just a random theological word intended just for scholars or should all of us understand Biblical exegesis? If you’ve asked any of these questions, keep reading. I’ll break down what Biblical exegesis is, why it’s important for all Christians, and how we can join in the practice of exegeting scripture correctly.
What is Biblical Exegesis?
In its simplest form, the word exegesis refers to the process of uncovering contextual information to form an explanation or interpretation of a text. According to Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, Biblical exegesis is a careful systematic study of scripture to discover the original intended meaning of the Biblical text.
This means that we pick up the text and we try to reconstruct its context before trying to fit it into ours. Think of your favorite classic novel. I love Wuthering Heights. However, when I pick up Wuthering Heights, I don’t read it as if it was written in 2021. If I really want to enjoy the novel, I need to understand some background on the time period it was written in, the culture described, the author, and their cultural background. I would also need to understand the language of the time and how the author weaves this language into her work.
I’d probably also want to think of the attitudes and worldviews of the people in this particular culture and time. Is there a war taking place? Was there a recession when this book was written? Who was the author inspired by? Has she written any other novels? It’s clear that the more you know about the background behind a novel, the more you’ll be able to appreciate it.
We’ve been trained to see the Bible as a self-help book
Biblical exegesis is actually pretty similar. Unfortunately, we haven’t been trained to intentionally study the Bible. Instead, we’ve been taught to see it as a self-help book. We pick out a verse or a passage here or there and use it to mean something it didn’t actually mean in its context. Of course there’s modern application to scripture because God’s word is timeless but the modern application needs to stand on the shoulders of the original meaning. That’s where we often go wrong.
Related: 5 Important Ways to Apply Scripture to Your Life
We selectively practice selective exegesis
Fee and Stuart made a pretty good point that I want to share with you. They said that as a whole, we already know how to exegete scripture. We do it when there’s an obvious discrepancy between the culture back then and today’s culture. For example, we wouldn’t dare think that God is calling us to sacrifice bulls, cows, and goats every Saturday. However, it’s in the Bible and God required his people to present sacrifices to him. So, why aren’t we required to make sacrifices too? Most of us know the answer to that question. Either your pastor taught it to you or you studied it for yourself through some sort of exegesis and came to an understanding of why God’s people today are not called to offer animal sacrifices. So, if we can exegete scripture in instances like this, we can do it all the time.
So, why don’t we?
Perhaps, a collective laziness permeates through our society?
I don’t mean this harshly but it’s something we need to think about. We’d rather take a few verses and use it for encouragement instead of understanding the weight of those verses in line with their original context and then discovering a meaningful application to our modern day circumstances. Sure, it’s quicker and easier. But we’re not aiming for quick and easy, we’re aiming for truth.
The early church was a “bookish” society
Learning and studying is a part of our call as Christians. The early church was a bookish society. They studied scripture, collected sacred scrolls, translated God’s word, taught others, and preserved the Holy text we get to enjoy today. If these men and women were not advocates of learning and studying, we wouldn’t have the Bible we do today.
We should be like them and study the Word diligently. Instead of just reading a verse or two, read the entire chapter or even the entire book. Ask meaningful questions and don’t assume that you automatically understand what the text means. Dig, investigate, and study. This is what Biblical exegesis is all about.
Related: How to Study the Bible (A Beginner Friendly Guide)
What is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis?
I’m going to throw in another big word – eisegesis. So far we know that exegesis means looking at the Biblical text critically to understand the author’s intended meaning. So, what is eisegesis? Eisegesis is bringing our own cultural ideas and beliefs into the text to try to interpret it. In other words, we read the text as if it was written to us today in 2021. Again, it is applicable for 2021 but it was not originally written for 2021. Its application for today cannot be separated from its meaning back then.
The problem with eisegesis is that it renders a text meaningless. If the text can mean whatever we want it to say, then how can it have meaning?
Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any.Isaiah 44:8 KJV
Let’s take a look at this verse from the King James Version. Someone can easily take it out of context and believe that the Bible says there is no God. This is an extreme example since most of us know that there is a God.
Let’s look at Psalm 46:5 (ESV):
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.psalm 46:5 (ESV)
I’m sure you’ve seen this quoted all the time. But did you know it’s often taken out of context? Take a second to read Psalm 46 in its entirety.
Now that you’ve read it, what do you think it means? It means that God is with the nation of Israel in battle. He is their refuge and strength against enemy forces. All of the weapons of their enemies will be broken and the nations will recognize that the God of Israel is the only true God and he will be exalted all over the earth.
In the same way that God fights for Israel, he fights for us. It doesn’t mean that we won’t go through hard things or struggle sometimes. But, it does mean that the same God who defends Israel against her enemies, defends and protects us. We can be encouraged in that.
Related: Five Poor Motives for Reading the Bible
How do we end up misinterpreting these verses?
Personally, I grew up in a very Christian community. I heard scripture all the time. It was preached from the pulpit, we learned it in sunday school, and it was even referred to in day to day life. But as much as I was familiar with scripture, I didn’t read it regularly. So, I ended up knowing lots of verses and Bible stories but not exactly knowing how they fit within the context of scripture.
Maybe you can relate. You’ve read Psalm 46:5 in a devotional or maybe your Bible Study leader quoted it to encourage you once. But, you’ve never actually read the Psalm.
I want to encourage you to look up these verses and try to read the chapter or two surrounding them each time you hear them quoted. You’d be surprised to discover the actual context behind them.
Related: 5 Important Questions to Ask As You Study The Bible
How can we properly exegete scripture?
Now that you know a little bit about Biblical exegesis, I want to share a few tips for properly exegeting scripture.
First, try to read without your cultural or personal perceptions. In other words, don’t come to the text with an idea of what it should say. Just read it for what it is and try to discover what it means.
When you start out in a new book or chapter of the Bible, first just observe what it says. Make sure that you fully understand what it’s actually saying before trying to find out what it means. Write down any words that you don’t understand, ask questions, and make note of important names, places, and events. Pay attention to details. They might seem minor but they can tell you a lot about the meaning of the text.
Allow yourself to feel confused. It doesn’t make you a “bad Christian” because you feel confused about scripture. In fact, if you never feel confused about it then you’re probably not doing it right.
Make regular study of scripture a part of your everyday life. Set time aside for it. Don’t just study because you want to encourage yourself or someone else – study daily for the sake of knowing God.
Pay attention to the author of the text. Who is he? What do we know about his life? His ministry? Where did he grow up? Is he Jewish or Gentile? What is his worldview? Did he write any other parts of scripture?
Use cross references to trace names and places back to other areas in scripture.
There’s a lot you can do to exegete scripture and you won’t need to do all of it all the time. But, make a practice of investigating the text to come to an understanding of what it’s actually saying.
The bottom line is, rightly dividing God’s word is going to take some effort and time. The key is to start with the text, discover its meaning, and then draw an application. Exegesis will definitely take time but it’s not hard or impossible. You can do it 🙂
Here are some of my favorite resources for understanding & interpreting scripture:
Women of the Word – Jen Wilkin
How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth – Gordon D Fee and Douglas Stuart
Stop Calling Me Beautiful: Finding Soul Deep Strength in a Skin Deep World – Phylicia Masonheimer
Living by the Book: the Art and Science of Reading the Bible – Howard G. Hendricks
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