The key to good exegesis and more intelligent reading of the Bible is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions. There are two basic kinds of questions to ask of every Bible passage: Those that relate to context and those that relate to content.
The Questions of Context are covered in two major areas. The Historical and Literary Contexts.
The Historical Context
1) What is the time and culture of the author and his readers–that is, geographical, topographical, and political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting.
2) What is the occasion of the book, letter, psalm, and other forms of genre.
It just makes all the difference in the world to know the personal background of Amos, Hosea, or Isaiah. It makes a difference to understand that a denarious (penny) was worth a days wage.
The more important questions of context has to do with occasion and purpose of the book or what the situation was with the author when he wrote. Most of these answers can be found in the book itself. We just need to read with our eyes open.
Some good tools to use are: Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries (from various writers), Bible maps, etc.
The Literary Context
Words only have meaning in sentences, and for the most part biblical sentences only have meaning in relation to the preceding and succeeding sentences.
The most important literary contextual question we ever ask is, “What’s the point?” What is he saying and why is he saying it right here? Having made that point, what is he trying to say next, and why?
It is necessary in order to do this to use a translation that recognizes poetry and paragraphs. That’s the way we think. Rarely do people use the King James Version in the cirlces I study with, but the KJV is an example of a Bible translation that does not recognize paragraphs. When we read it it can become confusing because we treat each verse as a separate complete thought. Doing this can really harm the understanding of the passage.
The Question of Content
Content has to do with the meaning of words, the grammatical relationships in sentences, and the choice of the original text where the manuscripts have variant readings.
This has to do with questions of meaning that one ordinarily asks of the biblical text.
An example from Fee and Stuart’s book follows: When Paul says, (2 Corinthians 5:16 NASB) “Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.” What does “according to the flesh” mean? It makes a difference in the text to know that it means “in a worldly way” rather than “when Jesus was walking on the earth.” Most of the time, we need outside help in determining these answers. That’s when we need to use the proper tools.
Having tools for any job, one wants the best tools available in order to do the best job. No less is true for good exegesis. Fee and Stuart list the following as essential tools: Bible Dictionary, Bible Handbook, A Good Translation (more than one), Good Commentaries. They list commentaries last because they need to be the last resort in Bible study. Commentaries, when used too often are a crutch that depends upon someone else’s exegesis, presuppositions and background. It’s hard enough getting through my baggage, much less the baggage of others.