Occasionally, while reading the Bible, I come across a verse that doesn’t make sense to me. Hopefully this happens to you, too. If not, you need to start paying attention while reading, or perhaps let go of some of your preconceived theological beliefs that have eliminated all wonder.
When I come across one of these verses, here is the process I use to determine its meaning.
Step 1) Find a confusing verse. It doesn’t even have to be a “doctrinally important” verse, just one that you’ve “never seen before” and you don’t know what it means. For the purpose of illustration, here’s one I recently saw “for the first time.”
The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord,
searching all the inward parts of the belly.
Step 2) Look at different translations. Finding mysterious verses is easier in the KJV since it uses outdated language in some cases. Using other translations can help give the sense. Never depend on just one translation, none is perfect.
Step 3) Examine where translations are different. Where translations differ is often because they are using different original texts. If the translations are all pretty close, then there is no textual dispute, just a confusing verse! Most translations say exactly what this verse says in the KJV, just substituting “belly” with something like “inward parts.” In the verse above there is no textual difference, just a matter of English word choice.
Step 4) Look at a few commentaries. Often you will find that confusing verses aren’t just confusing to you! Many commentaries skip confusing verses. While examining what each commentary says, see if there is disagreement in application, showing that, yup, this is a confusing verse. Other times you will find pretty good commonality of comment, thus proving that you are the only idiot in the world who can’t understand this verse. Been there. Commentaries say “the spirit of man” is the conscious, the mind, or the heart.
Step 5) Look for similar phrases in the Bible. Often commentaries can point out similar verses, but it’s amazing how often they miss better cross-references. Matthew 6:22 was brought up in one to illustrate the above verse. Use alternate words to do your concordance search–“heart” or “mind” in place of “spirit” in the verse above for instance.
Step 6) Think. You may choose to think earlier, but in many cases, too much thought can hinder actually seeing the point of the verse! Think about the verse. Is your confusion just over what the words mean? Is your confusion because it goes against something you believe? For this verse above, I immediately thought it was problematic since it was the human spirit that searched the inside, not God’s Spirit. Doesn’t that refute God’s Word and Spirit being the light that illumines human thought and action?
Step 7) Context. It also helps to examine all the verses around your chosen text. Typically, most verses are part of a greater thought, not just a random nugget dropped in an alien space. Proverbs is one exception, however, and that’s where my verse is from. Context helps me not at all in this verse.
Step 8) Write something out. Explain your thought in words. Writing helps me, others like to talk it out. Writing is better. You can edit. The process of writing is slower than talking, which helps in analyzing a verse.
Step 9) Present your understanding to peer review. Ask someone else what they think about your theory of the verse. Often, while explaining your new genius thought to someone else, you will realize you have no idea. The process of explaining yourself is often enough to lend understanding. Even if you explain it to someone who has no idea what you are talking about, it’s still helpful to attempt to explain it to someone else. If they do know what you are talking about, they can often lend greater insight.
Step 10) Go with it. Find the meaning and go with it. If it doesn’t satisfy, keep a question in mind as you read the rest of the Bible. Open questions are good. Use the Bible to answer them. Never assume you have the final word on any subject. There is always more to learn. Keep what you have, apply it, see what happens, and keep going, hoping to learn more.
This whole process is for the purpose of learning. We don’t learn the Bible to bash others; we learn it to know God. Don’t fear the process. Don’t fear being wrong. The best part about being wrong is it moves you toward being right. Keep reading the Word. There is so much there. Trust me, we don’t know it all.