How to Read a Book by God: Eight Questions for Better Understanding

Anyone who has led a Bible study for long has encountered one of those horribly awkward moments when some well-meaning person passionately points out something in a verse that simply isn’t there.

Years ago, I was leading a memorable small group discussion of Romans 9. John Piper once described these 33 verses as “a tiger going about devouring free-willers.” “He has mercy on whomever he wills,” the apostle Paul writes, “and he hardens whomever he wills.” The chapter is a captivating, sobering mountain range of the sovereignty of God and unconditional election. When we finished reading it out loud as a group, I opened the floor for initial responses, “So, what immediately sticks out to you from these verses?”

After a short pause, a sweet, well-meaning woman (who had just started coming to our church) dove headfirst into an uncomfortably long celebration of human free will. It started something like this: “I just love that God gives us the freedom to believe or not, that he doesn’t make the decision for us, that he leaves the choice up to us. I mean, it wouldn’t be right for him to choose some people and not others.” It was as if she had done a belly flop into what we just read. But it was more like twenty belly flops, because she just kept going and going. She wrapped up the wild splashing with a bow: “So, yeah, that’s what I saw.”

Everyone else in this particular circle knew enough to see she had missed the point entirely; they knew she was staring at apples and somehow seeing a longer, thinner yellow fruit with a peel. Unfortunately, all their fumbling twenty-something leader could manage to say in the moment was, “Well . . . those . . . are . . . some thoughts.”

What Does Meaning Even Mean?

The distance between that young woman’s “thoughts” and what Romans 9 actually says holds a critical lesson for ordinary Bible reading. Every book and verse in Scripture has a specific, original, and unchanging meaning. Behind every chapter we read is a real man with real convictions and real objectives, writing to a real audience with real needs and real problems, at a real time in history. And what it meant then, it still means now. Joe Rigney writes,

Whenever we talk about meaning, we are talking about persons. . . . If there is meaning, there must be a mean-er. Meaning exists only when someone has meant. (“Do Unto Authors”)

The Bible doesn’t say what we want it to say, or mean what we want it to mean; it says what it says, and it means what it means. Good reading, then, begins with recognizing and embracing that meaning, whatever it is. That means we don’t start our devotions by asking, “What does this mean for me?” We start with the harder question, “What does this mean?”

Many read the Bible searching for little sayings that inspire, a verse or even phrase to hold onto for the day, and in the process they end up missing what the authors are actually saying. In other words, they almost read the Bible. They open the pages and recognize words, phrases, and sentences, but they never actually get to the meaning. As a result, they often misinterpret (and misapply) what they read — and they miss the golden wisdom, warnings, and encouragements lying right in front of them.

Eight Questions for Better Reading

How do we grow in our ability to understand what authors really mean? What tools could we use to go deeper and see more in our Bible reading? I recently read Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book, and while it’s not a distinctly Christian book, its principles offer some precious guidance for those whose God has written a Book.

Advances in technology have sadly left many of us infants in reading. Adler is a timeless beginner’s guide to reading better. As he trains students to read well, he lays out eight driving questions that help us uncover meaning. None of these relates to applying what we’re reading, but they’re valuable tools for understanding, and all good application begins with understanding. I’ll model how to work through each of his questions using one of the most familiar and beloved chapters in all the Bible: Psalm 23.

1. What kind of chapter am I reading?

In Adler’s words, “Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.” In terms of the Bible, am I reading a history or a letter or a poem or something else? Who wrote what I’m reading, and when did they write it? What was happening at that time in the Bible’s story? Did the author write before or after Jesus came? Not all books and chapters in Scripture are alike. They cover a wide range of centuries, geographies, genres, problems, and objectives.

Psalms, for instance, is a collection of songs that the people of God memorized and sang together in worship. They represent a wide range of experiences and express a wide range of emotions. As we read, we need to remember that these were written to lead the gathered people in worship. Also important to note is that they were written by a number of different authors, so we need to identify who wrote the one we’re reading (in Psalm 23, King David), and if we know anything about the circumstances of the psalm (for instance, we know that David had been a shepherd).

2. How might I summarize the chapter?

Again, in Adler’s words, “State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.” When it comes to Bible reading, can you summarize the overall point or theme of this chapter in a sentence or two? If someone asked you what you read this morning, how would you answer? How would you try and sum up the meaning for someone who has never read what you just read?

How might you try and summarize the six verses in Psalm 23? Your summary doesn’t need to be clever, unique, or poetic — it doesn’t need to be Instagram-worthy — it just needs to be true. I might summarize it like this: If God is your God, he will lead, protect, provide for, and satisfy you — even when it feels otherwise.

3. What big pieces do I see?

In this step, having summarized the big picture, we look for the big puzzle pieces in that picture. During this stage, think a puzzle for 3-year-olds, not one with a thousand pieces. We’re looking for a few bigger points in the author’s argument, and then trying to see how those big glaring pieces fit together.

When you look at the six verses of Psalm 23, do you see any big, distinct pieces that make up the psalm? In verses 1–4, David describes God as a shepherd, who leads his sheep into green pastures and beside still waters, who protects and comforts through danger. In verses 5–6, God’s not a shepherd anymore, but a dinner host, preparing a table for his people and welcoming them to stay in his house forever. So, how might those two big pieces fit together? They’re two complementary pictures of the goodness of God that both borrow imagery from ordinary, familiar aspects of life at that time.

4. What problem(s) does this solve?

As you read the chapter, what issue or dilemma is the author trying to address? What tension is he trying to resolve? What need is he trying to meet? The apostle Paul tells us, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable . . . that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). So, what makes these verses profitable? How, in particular, do they teach, reprove, correct, train, or encourage us?

What problem inspired David to write Psalm 23? What sends him searching for words and drives him to think about green pastures and full tables? Because he knows life doesn’t always feel like green pastures, or still waters, or full tables. He’s reminding himself (and all the others) that God draws near even when he feels far away, that he vigilantly protects us even when we feel fragile and vulnerable, that he opens wide his table even in the moments when we feel hungry and unfulfilled. In other words, the psalm unveils the reassuring light of God’s steadfast care for us in the disorienting darkness of our fears.

5. Can I explain the key words?

Are there words in this chapter that seem especially important to the author? Maybe he repeats a particular word, or maybe the word appears in an especially important verse, or maybe the word itself simply carries unusual weight or significance for the author. We often fail to understand the meaning of sentences and paragraphs because we’ve failed to come to terms with the author. We’re not hearing or using words the same way he does.

As you look for key words, are there any words you can’t define or explain? If so, then you cannot fully understand the meaning of this verse or passage. It’s easier than ever to look up a definition (even better, search the word in the Bible to see how this author, or others in Scripture, use it). Make sure you can first define all the words, and then try to identify the ones that seem most significant to the author in this particular chapter.

What words might that be in Psalm 23? If I had to pick one, it would be shepherd. And before you assume you know what that word meant for David, you might give it a second, longer look. Many of us today are extremely far removed from the harsher realities of shepherding. David wasn’t. Yes, he was well-acquainted with green pastures and still waters, but he also knew valleys dark and dangerous enough to be called death. He knew lions and bears and wolves. So, for him, the shepherd wasn’t merely a gentle, peaceful man petting sheep, but also nature’s great warrior. In other words, he saw strength and courage in the shepherd that we might miss today.

6. Which sentences seem most important?

Similar to the previous point, now try to identify the key sentences in this particular chapter. The most important sentences can appear at the beginning of a passage, or at the end, or somewhere in the middle. Where does the author’s burden or aim come into greatest focus? Which sentences help make sense of all the others?

In the case of Psalm 23, I submit the two most important lines in the poem are the first and the last:

“The Lord is my shepherd.”

“I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

You can almost hear David saying, “If you only hear two things in these six verses, I want you to hear this: The Lord is my shepherd, and I will live in his house forever. Every other line is supporting those two lines, trying to help us understand those two promises and realities. God will protect and provide for me, and he will bring me home with him.”

7. How do the sentences build on one another?

Having identified the most important sentences, now try to discern how the rest of the chapter supports those sentences. Before, we worked with the bigger puzzle pieces. Now, we’re breaking them into smaller pieces and fitting them together. In this step, it’s particularly helpful to stop and study the words many of us overlook completely: for, and, but, if, unless, then, therefore, and so on. We might rush right by these connecting words, but they’re often giving us the answers. They’re telling us how the pieces fit together.

For instance, in Psalm 23, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” How can David live without fear even when he’s surrounded by fearful enemies and dangers? Because (for) he knows God is with him and stays with him, even in the valley. As another example, you can also see how the first several lines clearly build on the first verse: “The Lord is my shepherd.” David uses the next sentences to fill out the metaphor: “The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. . . . He restores. . . . He leads. . . . He comforts — like a shepherd.”

8. What questions do I still have?

Lastly, Adler encourages us to ask what problems the author didn’t solve. When it comes to merely human authors, they might not succeed in addressing the question or tension they set out to address (or they might create whole new problems in the process). The word of God, however, is perfect. “It shall not return to me empty,” God says, “but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). So, these words are never inadequate or problematic.

That doesn’t mean we won’t have questions. We’ll have lots of questions. For instance, in Psalm 23, it’s one thing to know that God is near even when he feels far, that he’ll protect us even when it seems like he won’t, but why does God allow us to walk in the valley at all? Why might he let us wander into brown pastures and raging waters? Why does he sometimes let us feel hungry and deprived and abandoned? Why do we ever need to feel need?

There are plenty of good answers to those questions (and they’re all in the Bible), but those weren’t the questions David was focused on in this particular psalm. Part of good reading, though, is learning to ask those questions and then patiently looking for answers (maybe over years). Fortunately, when it comes to this book, God can handle even our deepest, hardest ones. He’s never left without an answer.

How to Hear God

These aren’t the last questions we ask about a chapter or passage in the Bible — we need to press through and ask about what this means today, what God wants us to feel and do in the twenty-first century. But they should be the first kinds of questions we ask.

If we try to make the Bible meet our immediate needs or make sense of our day before trying to understand the Bible on its terms and in its day, then we’ll inevitably twist and distort what it says. We’ll try to make it say things it doesn’t. But if we’re willing to slow down and listen — to recognize its real meaning — then we’ll get to hear God speak, with authority and wisdom and love, into everything we need and face today.

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