You’re swirling in details. You tried the OIA method of Bible study, and it yielded more observations and more questions than you could handle. You thought you’d dabble in the magic of Bible study, but the spell has taken over, and the water line has exceeded flood stage. You’re tempted to cue “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and drown your exhaustion in a bucket of popcorn.
Don’t lose hope. You’re almost there; you just need to pull it all together and integrate the details into a coherent main point.
Such integration matters because ancient authors didn’t waste space with meaningless details. Every word had a purpose. Every sentence captured an idea. Every paragraph advanced the agenda. And every section had a main point. The accumulation of these points promoted the goal of bringing the audience closer to the Lord. These main points are the ones worth fighting for.
So how do we figure out the main point? I’ll give 3 tips and illustrate them from my recent posts on Proverbs 5.
1. Always ask “why?”
The challenge of interpretation is to move past the “what” to discover the “why” of the passage. Why is this text here? What was the author’s agenda?
Though most Bibles have headings at the beginning of each section (Proverbs 5 in ESV: “Warning Against Adultery”), these headings are usually observation summaries and not interpretive main points. These summaries help when you’re flipping through and trying to find a specific verse, but they don’t always comprise the passage’s meaning. To convert these summary headings to main points, sometimes you only have to ask “why.” For example, “Why does this passage warn us against adultery?”
Similarly, you can take any or all of your observations, ask “why,” and move closer to the main point.
2. Account for the context.
We’ve seen how the book overview places the work in history. This historical context influences our reading of the text and helps us to see the main point. In the case of Proverbs 5, we see Solomon training a new generation of nobility to lead Israel with purity and integrity.
In addition to the historical, two further types of context should guide us.
First, examine the literary context. What was the main point of the previous section of text? How does the author move from that section into this section? What issues lingered at the end of that section, and how does this section address those issues? Because Genesis 1 is the beginning, we have no prior literary context. Instead, this chapter will establish the context for everything that follows. Thus, we should read Genesis 2:4-25 (and following passages) in light of Genesis 1:1-2:3.
Second, examine any intertextual context. That is, use a search engine, cross-references, or list of Old Testament quotations to find other parts of the Bible that quote this section (or are quoted by it), and figure out the connection between them. When God inspired authors to quote other passages, he was showing us how to interpret those passages.
3. Track the author’s flow of thought.
Ask: How did the author get from the first verse to the last verse? Break the chapter into paragraphs or stanzas, and figure out each paragraph’s/stanza’s main point, which is a sub-point on the author’s agenda. String those points together to see how one paragraph/stanza moves to the next. If you’re still stumped, you can break each paragraph/stanza down into sentences and track the flow from sentence to sentence. Don’t give up; this challenging skill gets easier with practice.
For Proverbs 5, I outlined the flow of thought in my first post:
- verses 1-6: not all sexual temptation is as good as it seems
- verses 7-14: the wrong choices have dire consequences
- verses 15-20: utter unselfishness in the context of marital love is surprisingly intoxicating
- verses 21-23: those who think they know satisfaction better than God does have sprung their own trap
So, compiling all my observation and interpretation, my final post on Proverbs 5 reached this main point: The wise can see through the culture’s illusion of sexual “freedom.” This main point took me right to Jesus and on to application.
Sexual freedom is truly an illusion. Jesus submitted to the cross and the grave so we could be free of both forever; he proved it by his glorious resurrection. Now we get to image him to the world. Find your freedom in self-denial. Obtain life through your death. Secure satisfaction by serving and satisfying others, especially your spouse.
The wise person sees the culture’s illusions, blasts them with Bible dynamite, and wins others to radically selfless, Christ-like joy, far more exciting than either religious prudishness or enslaving immorality.
Each text has a point. These three skills will help you get there so you can see Jesus and find eternal life in him.