How do I decode the point of a whole chapter of the Bible? How do I summarize the main point of a whole psalm? Welcome back to the podcast. That’s the question we need answered today. And if you’re reading your Bible along with us, using the Navigators Bible Reading Plan, our reading schedule hits January 8 today. That means we’re reading Psalm 8 together. Psalm 8 is rather hard to make sense of, hard to summarize, so it’s a good time in our Bible reading to pause and ask Pastor John how he summarizes it and other whole chapters and whole psalms.
Philip asks this very question: “Dear Pastor John, I’ve really enjoyed the way you go through individual verses and explain them very clearly by breaking them down and explaining each part. I understand that meditating on small parts of Scripture can help us really suck all the nourishment from it, but sometimes my problem is in understanding entire chapters or larger sections of the Bible.
“I read something like Psalm 8, and although I can understand small parts of these texts, I really get lost and fail to follow the entire flow of argument or where the chapter is going. I’m often confused by a whole psalm. It seems disjointed to me, and I can’t follow how one line leads to the next. Could you help me to figure out ways to understand large sections of Scripture as a whole, rather than just small chunks disconnected from other parts? Thank you.”
Let me see if I can help, first with an analogy — namely, an analogy of a jigsaw puzzle — and then with an exhortation about the hard work of seeing a whole chapter. Then I’ll give an example from my own experience.
Scripture as a Puzzle
Think of a larger unit of Scripture, like a chapter or a few paragraphs or maybe several chapters — think of it as a jigsaw puzzle, a five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle. There are five hundred pieces laid in front of you, and as you look at them, they do not look at all like the painting on the front of the box. They are just one big jumble.
That’s how the words and phrases and clauses might look to you in a chapter in the Bible when you try to think of the chapter as a whole. They’re just lots and lots of words and phrases and clauses that might say some nice things, but my oh my, they don’t make one big picture.
How do you go about seeing the whole picture instead of five hundred scattered pieces? Of course, the Bible doesn’t have a picture on the top of the box. You’ll work a little harder here. How do you see a chapter as a whole, with a main point, with all the pieces fitting together to make that main point, instead of just seeing sixty or seventy scattered clauses and phrases? That’s the goal.
You take one piece, right? (I love to do puzzles like this because I love figuring this out.) You take one of the pieces, and you look at the piece very carefully. You don’t just keep scanning your eyes over the five hundred pieces superficially while saying, “Oh, let me see something. Oh, let me see something.” No, no, no, no. You get nowhere that way.
You take one piece, and you examine it very carefully. You notice that half of this piece is solid red and the other half is gold, solid gold, and you notice that the little protrusion at the top is split in half. Half of it is gold and half of it is red. From this you infer, with careful thinking, that there is another piece somewhere here, somewhere, that will be half red and half gold, and instead of a protrusion there’s going to be an indention in the bottom of the piece, leading up into half red and half gold.
Now you’re looking very specifically for that piece. As you scan the five hundred pieces, this time you’re looking specifically for it. You find maybe six or seven or eight pieces that have this half red and half gold, and you slide them around, looking for how they can fit together.
You push them off to the side of the table in a corner, and you find one or two that fit, and then another and another, and pretty soon you realize that you’ve got five, six, seven, eight pieces all fitting together. You notice, “Oh my, this is a robe draped over the arm of a throne. So, that’s going to go here, probably.” You set that midsize unit aside now, and you do the same thing all over again with another piece and its peculiar characteristics, fitting the pieces together as you go.
That’s how you build little pieces into midsize units. We might call those two or three verses, or a paragraph, and we’ve got maybe five paragraphs to fit together. Now you’ve got several — maybe three, four, five, six, seven, eight — midsize units, and you should be able to ask of those three, four, five verses in each unit, “What’s the main point here?” because of how they fit together.
Resist the Urge to Quit
Now, here’s my exhortation. One of the reasons we don’t move from the part to the whole in reading the Bible is because it is very hard work. It is hard work to fit all the midsize pieces together so as to see the whole. For most of us, and I certainly include myself here, we simply cannot do this in our heads. There’s where people run into trouble. They’re reading devotions, and they’re trying to do this in their head.
Well, I can’t even begin to do this in my head. We have to do it on paper. We have to write it down. We have to jot down the main point: “The red-and-gold midsize unit means ‘robe over the arm of a throne’” — that kind of a thing. And then we jot down the next main point of the next midsize unit, and so on, until we’ve got on our piece of paper six, seven, eight sentences, each one now summing up the midsize unit in the chapter, in the larger unit we’re trying to understand. Finally, we try to go about seeing how those midsize units relate to each other.
And my exhortation is simply this: Don’t give up on that. Use a pencil and a paper. Draw lines between them. You just have no idea how they might all fit together. You’ll be amazed at what you’re able to see by trying to fit those midsize units and their main points together to make the larger piece.
Unpacking Psalm 8
Now, I’ve been baffled over the years by the main point of Psalm 8. It seems like the main point is the phrase “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” because it begins with that and it ends with that (verses 1, 9). That’s a wonderful structural thing to see.
But in the middle, you have these babies who cry out, and God who gets victory over his foes through the mouth of infants (verse 2). So, I jotted that down: “Okay, so the meaning of the first part of the psalm, just the first couple of verses, seems to be that God gets victory over his foes by babies saying things.” And I have no idea how that works — none. That’s just what it says, so I jotted that down.
And then I move on to the next unit, which seems just totally different: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers . . . what is man that you are mindful of him?” (verses 3–4). And through this man, who’s just “a little lower than the heavenly beings,” God governs the whole world filled with fish and birds (verses 5–8). Now, what’s the main point? I’ve put a few pieces together here. I wanted to jot down on my piece of paper the main point of this midsize unit, so I jotted down, “God exercises dominion over his earth through insignificant man, who, compared to the stars, seems like nothing.”
And as soon as I wrote it, I thought, “Oh, I get it. The babies are insignificant, and God works his victories through babies. Man is insignificant, and God exercises dominion through man.” And the psalmist ends by essentially saying, “How great is his glory and his majesty?” Surely, then, the point is this: one of the peculiar aspects of the majesty and glory of God is that he gets his victories, and he exercises his dominion, through the use of weak and insignificant things.
Amen. Praise God. And that’s exactly the use that Matthew makes of it on Palm Sunday, as Jesus enters the city where the babies are crying out, “Hosanna!” (Matthew 21:15) — and he’s on a donkey, of all things.
Look, Write, Pray to See
So, the point is to look at the pieces very carefully, to fit them together in midsize units, to jot down the main points of the midsize units until you have them all on a half sheet of paper, and then to think and think, and pray and pray, and think and pray and think and pray, and to organize and draw lines, and to try to fit them all together until they fall into place and you see how these five, six, seven, eight, nine points of the midsize units are in a flow that make one big overarching point. You will be surprised, if you take up pencil and paper and do this, what you will see.