Resources for Understanding Scripture
Christian discernment is not the process of applying minds and imaginations to issues of life and culture. It is, rather, applying minds and imaginations shaped by Scripture to issues of life and culture. Those three words make all the difference. A life-long and holy spirited process, it results in hearts committed to the gospel and lives that demonstrate ever-deepening faith, quiet hope, unsettling contentment, and ironic joy. Given the importance of Bible study, here are two helpful resources that discerning Christians may want to consider adding to their—or their church’s—library.
From Aaron to Zurishaddai
Rev. Richard Losch has already given us a helpful guide to all the places in the Bible in The Uttermost Part Of The Earth. Now he gives us All the People of the Bible. One of the nicest things about All the People is that although it is a fine reference book covering—no surprise here—all the people mentioned in Scripture, it doesn’t read like a reference book. As I wrote this review, I repeatedly opened the book at random, began reading and quickly got so interested that I had to pull myself away to get back to this piece.
All the People is divided into three parts. The first—and by far the largest section—is a series of informative articles on individuals about which Scripture, history, and/or tradition provides some significant information. The second is a complete listing of every single name mentioned in the Bible and the Apocrypha, with a brief single-sentence description of who they are. The second includes more names, for example, because some appear only in genealogies or appear so briefly we have no information about them. And finally, Losch includes 5 helpful tables, including the Israelite kings, Seleucid emperors, Maccabean leaders, and the Herodian family of rulers.
In his Preface, Losch says something we should remember as we study the Scriptures and reflect on the people we meet in its pages:
We cannot draw a neat line and put saints on one side and scoundrels on the other. In fact, most of the great leaders of Judaism and Christianity started out as the worst sort of scoundrels. Abraham lied and cheated his way through Egypt in order to save his own skin. Jacob bilked his brother out of his birthright, then deceived and lied to his father in order to cheat his brother out of his paternal blessing. David was a liar, an adulterer and murderer, a terrible husband and a worse father. Matthew was a publican, the most contemptible kind of traitor to his own people. Tradition paints Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, even though the Bible does not portray her as such and she was almost certainly innocent of that charge. Nevertheless God, working with such weak and flawed material, molded them into spiritual powerhouses and examples of moral strength and righteousness. John Claypool likens God to the medieval alchemists who tried to turn lead into gold. God takes the crudest of lead in the characters of his creatures and turns it into glorious spiritual gold. We who are equally weak and flawed should find great encouragement in this. If the likes of Jacob could become a great patriarch of the faith, then we too can become spiritually strong and righteous. As George Santayana observed, “It is easier to make a saint out of a libertine than out of a prig.”
We recommend All the People in the Bible to you. Use it as a reference and your Bible study will be more richly informed. And read it casually—it’s so well written by someone so obviously in love with Scripture that you’ll hardly notice you’re learning something new about someone who appears in the grand story of the Bible—the same Story you are part of.
Wisdom, Poetry, & Writings
As I travel and speak on Christian discernment, the topic of Bible study often arises in conversations with people from a wide variety of callings and vocations living in a variety of settings and places. For all the variety, however, many of the same things keep coming up—how to find time to read and reflect, the best methodology to use in order to allow the text to order and structure our study, and how to make certain our ideas about the texts we study are both biblically and historically accurate.
Finding time is hard in our busy world, I always say. If we want to say Yes to something we’ll need to say No to something else, so perhaps we should begin there.
As to the best method of study, because no specific approach is inspired by God, we have freedom to structure things around the way we learn best. One approach we have found useful can be found on Ransom’s web site (www.ransomfellowship.org)—click on Publications, then on eBook archives, and download the file, “A Practical Method of Bible Study for Ordinary Christians.”
And as to making certain our ideas about the texts we study are both biblically and historically accurate, we can use good resources that are rooted in the great creeds, confessions of faith, and stream of orthodoxy from the past two millennia of Christian theology. I don’t want to innovate when I interpret Scripture; I want to be biblically faithful. Creativity comes in applying the timeless teaching of God’s word, not in determining what it means.
One section of the Bible for which the insight of good scholars can be of immense help includes the “wisdom, poetry, and writings” of the Christian Scriptures—the Old Testament books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ruth, and Esther. There are several reasons why this is so. For one thing, these books represent the literature of cultures very different from our own and which produced these works many centuries ago. Of course we’ll have questions. For another thing, the majority of Christians I discuss this with say they read very little poetry on a regular basis. Is this perhaps why we tend to mine the psalms of the Old Testament for their theological ideas rather than read and respond to them as poetry? One more thing: has our culture produced a body of literature that is parallel to, or equivalent to the ancient writings known as “wisdom literature?” If we can’t think of many titles in answer to that question, we should expect some difficulty in understanding the Old Testament books that comprise this genre.
Tremper Longman (Westmont College) and Peter Enns (Westminster Theological Seminary) have edited a superb resource that will deepen our understanding of this vital section of Scripture. Covering everything from Acrostic to Zion and a lot in between, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings may be more than is needed in each individual library, but each individual who takes Bible study seriously will want to have access to it.
We recommend it to you. Buy a copy or donate one to your church library, and then dig deeper into a fascinating, profound, and richly textured section of sacred Scripture.
SourceLosch from All the People in the Bible, p. vii-viii.
All the People of the Bible: An A-Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 2008) 578 pages.
Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2008) 941 pages + indices.