I was recently asked how I would go about studying a book of scripture (ex. Genesis, Revelation, etc…). There are many approaches to this, but like anything, there are some general principles of learning that apply here.
You need to start building a framework so that everything you learn has somewhere to go. You can’t hang a decoration before your walls are framed. So we’re going to start with broad non-specific information and then move to a closer point to increase detail.
I will preface all my suggestions below with the advice that it’s probably best to pray and ask God how you should approach a study of a book. Following an annual study plan for an entire work of scripture has never worked for me. Only a handful of times in my life have I actually completed the course of study for a given year, and usually only when I was teaching it and forced to do it for a calling. In general, I try to follow where my interests lead, trusting that the Spirit is guiding me and generating that instinctual energy to pull me toward something I need. We learn better when we are studying something of interest to us, so even if we study something out of duty, we should always be seeking to go deeper where the Spirit leads us.
A great place to start in studying a book of scripture in the Bible is the Bible Dictionary. For example, if you were to study the book of Genesis, you can open your Scripture Notes library, click Study Helps, select Bible Dictionary, and read the entry about the book of Genesis to get an overview of what the book is about.
Once we have this overview, we might open the Bible Hub website and look at a timeline showing estimated historical dates for the events in Genesis. (https://biblehub.com/timeline/#ot)
It sometimes helps to diagram things out or jot down major highlights of the text, or the timeline. Understanding where a book starts and stops and how it sits in relation to other books helps give a perspective on the book.
It can also really help to understand the basic geography where the events are taking place and any cultural things happening during that time. What’s the state of the nation? The state of the writer?
You might next read all the chapter headings for a book to get a little better overview by skipping through the details and getting a feel for the short descriptions of each chapter.
Once you have this understanding, your foundation and framing is complete. Time to get closer.
Now you start reading. You could read very fast and just try to get a sense of the story. You’ll write down simple questions as you go but this isn’t yet at the level of studying. Reading is important though. In a quote I shared in last week’s blog post on “how to study the scriptures by writing scripture,” I shared this quote from Brigham Young.
“Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so, that you may be as familiar with the spirit and meaning of the written word of God as you are with your daily walk and conversation.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954, p. 128.)
We want to feel what the writers felt. Praying for this as we read can give us glimpses into their thoughts and feelings.
When you’re familiar with the stories, then you’ll go back and read it again, and again. You’ll start to see things you didn’t notice previous times through the book. You’ll ask questions and it will benefit you greatly to write them down. Check out this short video on the study tip I call Monotony for why this is important.
At some point on your journey through a book, you might want a commentary to get the thoughts of a scholarly person who has devoted a lot to understanding the scriptures. This could be on your first pass, or later on after you’re well familiar with the text. There are some wonderful commentaries out there on the scriptures.
There is nothing wrong with commentaries that help guide us. The eunuch traveling to Jerusalem was reading the scriptures and Philip came along at just the right moment to ask a question. It’s said you should always ask someone a question you know the answer to so when he saw the eunuch reading Isaiah, he said, “Understandest thou what thou readest?”
We all know the answer to that question…😊
Acts 8:31. And [the eunuch] said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.
One year I decided to make a study of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. I’d read it several times and taken an institute class on it in college. I’d read Joseph Smith’s statement that it was the plainest book, and like others, understood very clearly my own personal deficiencies while thinking about that statement…
So I got help. I first went through Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s New Testament commentary, verse by verse, making notes in my Scripture Notes app to preserve the unique insights next to each verse. Then I went through two other commentaries on the book, each with a different perspective. They were all very helpful in putting together a better picture for me.
All along that path, I was asking questions that weren’t addressed in any of the commentaries, writing them in my notes, and occasionally getting inspiration on where to look for answers.
There are lots of commentaries online as well. You can do a search to find one, plus Scripture Notes links to BibleHub.com from every Bible verse and you can quickly find a variety of commentaries about whatever verse you are reading. There is huge overlap between various religion’s core beliefs. We can certainly learn a lot from people who have studied the scriptures deeply.
For example, when I was interested in a Jewish perspective on Exodus, I picked up a copy of Dennis Prager’s book, “Exodus: God, Slavery, and Freedom.” He had some fascinating things to share from the perspective of a Jew who has had those events burned into his cultural heritage.
The greatest commentary is what comes by the direction of the Spirit though. This happens most often when I ask good questions, which requires stopping my reading, and using my brain to think.
“What does that mean” is the most important question I ask over and over again. “Why that word” is a close second.
When I think “what does that mean,” I often stop and think about a question I can write down. When I write it down, sometimes the Spirit guides my words so I can ask a better question. The benefit of immediately asking a question is that I don’t risk forgetting the thoughts coming to me in that moment. That question is preserved, and questions lead to answers. If not today, or tomorrow, perhaps in 10 years.
Questions lead to digging for meaning. Scripture Notes lets you instantly get Webster’s 1828 definitions for words and Hebrew or Greek meanings for them as well. Proper definitions lead to better questions. If you see a word in a book of scripture like the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants and want to understand the Hebrew or Greek for it, do a search for the word and find instances of that word in the Bible. Look for somewhere it’s of a similar usage and then look it up using the Blue Letter Bible link.
One of my favorite “commentaries” isn’t so much a commentary but a book of questions. Many of you are probably familiar with David Ridges’ series of books on scripture “Made Easier.” Dr. James Faulconer has done a series of books on the scriptures “Made Harder” which are just collections of probing questions. Here’s a link to a webinar he did with me several months ago if you want to learn from a great questioner.
When we ask good questions, sometimes God answers with a prompting to study something else. For example, I once had a prompting to open a book on my bookshelf that I knew I wasn’t thinking about when I was studying my scriptures. I opened it up and started flipping through and discovered an answer to what I was thinking about. That was pretty cool (and admittedly rare). Yet often answers come to me that involve more study and where to look because God has already provided the answer somewhere and he just needs to point me in the right direction.
Sometimes God might give you direct revelation and prompt you to write down an answer. You might not even feel a prompting to write something, but just start writing your own speculative thoughts after you put down your question. It might seem like speculation to you because it’s not logical or just sounds like your own voice in your head. Write it down. Think about it. Write more. Make corrections. You are in training to get revelation.
There are two resources I’ve created to help people learn to dig into the scripture better.
First is this infographic you can review or print. Try it out as you study a verse or chapter. It can help you think about things you don’t normally think about when you read the scriptures. It will take you from reading, to studying, to searching for meaning.
Second is the webinar I did on how to 10x your scripture study. Here’s a link if you haven’t seen it. This will show you how to use the infographic to study the scriptures more deeply using Scripture Notes.
The bottom line is, there’s no one way to study a book of scripture. Start broad to build your framework, then dig deeper. Over time you will accumulate many insights you will cherish and reflect on as the Lord opens your eyes to the spiritual truths he wants to teach you.
(Featured image by Digitalskill @ 123rf.com)
Heather Linchenko – How to Fight Right to Build Zion
Kerry Muhlestein – A Primer on Egyptian Religion, how it Parallels LDS Beliefs and Temples
How to be Encircled in God’s Love
How do I Obtain Eyes to See and Ears to Hear?
Leading Saints Interview on Preparing Sacrament Meeting Talks
New Lexicon Feature Added