Literature was a challenge for many of us in school. Trying to keep up with the characters and sub-plots can be frustrating. Having a literature teacher that provided questions to help us get a handle on the story or play was essential. Those few questions were the difference between passing or getting to take the class again. When we read the Bible, having a few questions can help.
Here are three questions that can help us get over that seemingly overwhelming feeling when it comes to reading the Bible and understanding it.
1. What was going on here?
Nothing happens in a vacuum and that includes the stories, sermons, songs, and letters we find in the Bible. Regardless of the type of Bible passage we may be reading, we will want to pay attention to what is going on in the passage, around the passage, and behind the passage. We may notice people, places, and words that give us some reference point for the story. The details given matter and are there on purpose.
Take for example the story of Esther in the Old Testament. The nemesis in the story is Haman who is identified as an Agagite four different times (Esther 3:1; 8:3, 5; 9:24). We might notice in the cross references in the middle column of our Bible a reference to 1 Samuel 15. If we look in 1 Samuel 15, we discover that King Saul was directed by God to exact God’s judgment on the Amalekites. He chose to spare some of the best of the Amalekites including their King whose name was Agag. Even though Samuel executed Agag, some of his descendants survived.
Knowing the back story impacts how we view Haman and gives us some insight into his reaction to Mordecai who refused to bow to him.
If we are reading a sermon or letter in the Bible, knowing what issue the sermon or letter was in response to can be helpful. This is where a good study Bible comes in handy because we can read the notes usually found at the bottom of the page or the introduction to a Bible book to help us figure out some of what was going on.
2. How were they supposed to respond?
The people who received a specific Bible book were supposed to do something in response, which brings us to this second question. Here’s an example of how this might work. In Proverbs 16:10, we find Solomon calling for kings to deliver fair judgments. A few verses prior, Solomon reminded his hearers that God examines the motives of a person (Proverbs 16:2). Most scholars believe that one of the audiences Solomon had in mind when presenting his proverbs were those who would rule and relate to those who ruled after him (see Proverbs 1:8ff). We would expect Solomon’s sons to pay attention to what their dad taught.
Fast forward to the early days of Rehoboam’s reign, the son who succeeded Solomon as king. He assembled the northern tribes (the non-Judah tribes) and they requested that he lighten the workload that had been set by Solomon (1 Kings 12). What would be the fair judgment that reflected a right motive called for in Proverbs 16? How was he supposed to respond?
The experienced leaders counseled Rehoboam to lighten the load while the younger nobles counseled him to show the people that he was now in charge and to increase the workload expected. Rehoboam ignored the counsel of the experienced leaders and the teachings of Proverbs 16, and the rest is history with Rehoboam facing a civil war that led to the divided kingdom.
When we read any Bible passage, we should look for an intended response. The people in the story and those who received the letters were supposed to respond in some way. That response may be gaining a deeper understanding of God, to turn to God in repentance, or to live a Christ-honoring life.
3. How are we supposed to respond?
This question gets to the heart of reading the Bible. We may know how Rehoboam was supposed to respond but that doesn’t matter unless we connect the response to our own lives. First of all, let’s avoid the what-would-we-do-if-we-had-been-Rehoboam trap. Placing ourselves in the story may be a common exercise, but it usually doesn’t get us anywhere. None of us really knows how we would have responded if we had been Rehoboam.
A better approach is to look for situations in our life that compare to the situation being faced in the Bible passage. We can then compare their response to our actual response in a real-life situation we have faced or are facing.
Let’s look back in history at Rehoboam’s grandfather, King David. In one of the more recognized events in the Bible, David faced a giant who mocked the God of Israel. David demonstrated faith in God in spite of the taunts from the giant.
We can look at times in our own life when we encounter someone who challenges the power of God to rescue His people and examine our faith when in those situations. We come to understand that we too are supposed to express faith in God regardless of the taunts and threats.
We see the same reality in the life of Job as he was challenged to remain faithful to God no matter what happened in his life. Peter encouraged his readers to remain faithful to Christ and to do so with joy even when facing persecution and execution (see 1 Peter 4:13).
Part of learning is taking action. When we read the Bible, we should be looking for the actions we should take in response. To get to that point, we must first ask what was going on and how did the people in the story or the recipients of the Bible book respond. These three questions will help us read with focus and help us grow in our understanding of the Bible and in our spiritual lives.