Our next phase in studying the bible is another stage that is frequently skipped. There is the temptation once again to go straight to interpretation. But interpretation asks the question, “What does it mean?” Trying to answer that question before asking the observation question – “What does it say?” – can lead to serious errors. We can’t know what it means before we know what it says.
So in the observation stage, all we are doing is working our way through the text finding the cold hard facts. Since we already have determined the main theme and the purpose, and we have charted the book paragraph by paragraph, much of our observation has been done. We know the big idea behind the writing of the book. Now we want to take a closer look, verse by verse, to see how each verse relates to the main theme.
I recommend doing this by the major sections that you identified in your overview, so that you do all the steps of observation on the first section before moving on to the second.
The first step of observation is asking questions of the text. Work your way through the first section asking who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. Focus just on the obvious. The obscure will become clearer later on. As you go through the text, write down the answers to these questions. You can do this on another piece of paper, or you might find it helpful to print the chapter off of the internet and take your notes in the margin directly beside the verses. Bible Gateway is a great site where you can find most translations.
Who? Who is writing? Who is the recipient? If it is a narrative portion of Scripture, who is present? Who has dialogue? To whom are they speaking? Who is mentioned?
What? What is happening? If there is dialogue, what is said? What are the main events? What are the major ideas? What key words or phrases are used? (This one is huge. You may find as you take a closer look at a major section that it has key words unique to that section, which you didn’t notice during your overview. These words will always be significant. Write them down for later steps in your observation.) What kind of sentences are used – commands, questions, exclamations, statements, exhortations, rebukes, prayers, Scripture quotations, etc?
When? When are the events taking place? When will they take place? Are there time reference words indicating past, present, or future? Words like first, then, after, until? What is the sequence of events?
Where? Where did this take place? Where is the author? Where is the recipient? Where will it take place?
Why? Why is so much being said about this issue? Why is so little being said about this issue? Why should we do this? Why should we not do this? Why is that detail mentioned? Are there any clues about why things are being said or done? If there are key words in this section that are not in other sections, why is that?
How? Is there an explanation about how things are done? How is this truth illustrated?
The only question we do not want to try to answer yet is “what does this mean?” It’s fine to have that question in your mind about a certain detail or statement in the text, but it is too early to be answering that question. If you develop interpretation questions as you do your observation, write them down on another piece of paper, noting the verse or verses to which the questions pertain. You can return to those later when we get to the interpretation stage.
The second step of observation is marking key words and phrases. This may be another good reason to print the text off of the internet, although some people don’t have any problem marking the words directly in their bible. Key words are words the author uses repeatedly or words that are so important that removing them would leave the text without meaning. I always consider references (including pronouns) to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to be key words. It is helpful to mark each key word in a distinctive way. You may want to use unique symbols and colors.
It is a good idea to read through the text marking only one key word at a time. So if you have eight key words, you will read the section eight times. Again, repetitive reading pays dividends. One huge benefit of doing this, is that without knowing it, you will begin to memorize large chunks of Scripture.
Be sure that you don’t go into autopilot, mindlessly marking words and phrases. Prayerfully engage the text as you read it.
The third step of observation is to make lists of what you learn from the text about each key word. This is a concrete representation of what the text says, so that later we can answer the question, “what does it mean?” If we were to make a list of the things we learn about the key words in Ephesians chapter one, we would find that the list about God and the list about Christ would be very long lists. This gives a big hint as to what Paul’s main point is.
The fourth step is to mark words of conclusion, comparison, and contrast. Words of conclusion are words like then, therefore, meanwhile, for this reason, for, as a result. It is important to mark these words and try to follow the pattern of thought that connects the paragraphs or sentences on either side of the word of conclusion. We have seen numerous instances of these words in Ephesians. For example, Ephesians 2:8 says, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. This word marks the main point Paul has tried to communicate in the previous 7 verses. It is the conclusion he wants us to draw from that passage.
Words of comparison refer to things that are similar or alike, or in some cases, should be similar or alike. Frequently, the words like or as show a comparison. Make note of the things that are compared. We saw one major word of comparison in Ephesians 4:32: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. This verse holds up the ultimate standard against which we should compare our compassion for other people.
Words of contrast are words like but, however, on the contrary, on the other hand, or nevertheless. When you see these words, determine if two things are being contrasted. If they are, write down what is being contrasted. One great example in Ephesians is in 5:8: For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light. A huge point being made in the entire second half of Ephesians is that our lives after Christ should look nothing like our lives before Christ. This word of contrast highlights that for us.
Again, this is a lot of hard work. Hang in there and keep digging. Once you have finished these steps, then you will be ready for the next stage, interpretation.