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Monday, February 9, 2009

Studying Your Life Instruction Manual

As I said last time, we should read up on our teachers, so we can catch on if their teachings are deceptive, and leave such teaching behind. I don't know the best way a person can learn the basic principles of God's Word if he/she is not willing to take the time to read and study the Bible daily. How can we say we know anything about a book if we haven't read it?

One way you can accelerate the learning process is to search for passages that focus on scriptural topics you find interesting. If you haven't found them in the Bible before, however, you're going to need some sort of indexing system to find them. That's where concordances, topical guides, commentaries, and dictionaries come in. These aren't just for beginners. Most pastors own at least some of these reference works and use them when writing sermons.

The Big Four Bible Reference Guides

  • Concordance--A definitive, alphabetical listing of every word in the Bible and where it occurs, sorted by the order in which it occurs. It quotes the phrase where the word is used, substituting the first letter of the word for the word itself. Each listing also includes an italicized number at the end of the line. This refers you to an entry in either the Hebrew-Chaldean or the Greek language concordances at the back of the book. There, you can learn about the original word that was translated into English. One of the most popular is Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. That concordance is for the KJV, which means it includes words like "whomsoever." I use the NIV version, the Strongest Exhaustive Concordance (kind of a pun on the original concordance author's name).

  • Topical Guides--a listing of topics covered in the Bible, sometimes grouped in larger categories like "Judgement," with subcategories like, "According to Opportunity and Works." Each category contains scriptures and short phrase descriptors that relate to the topic or subtopic. A popular version is Nave's Topical Bible.

  • Commentaries--a list of every verse in the Bible, explaining in detail exactly what the passage means and how it fits into the context of the verses around it, as well as how scholars traditionally relate it to the bigger context of Scripture and history. Sometimes the commentary points out alternative translations from the original language. The best (and I think the only widely-accepted) commentary out there is Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. The language in it is a little old (I believe it was compiled in the 1800s), but it's still invaluable. It's also the thickest and heaviest book the average pastor might own.

  • Bible dictionary--an alphabetical listing of all of the keywords in the Bible, such as names of people and places, holidays, plant and animal names, and other significant words. There won't be an entry for "the," but there will be entries for things like "David," "hyrax," and "Feast of Tabernacles." It is similar to an encyclopedia, since it talks about the historical and cultural context of the word, as well as giving the etymology of the word, if known. Some dictionaries even have pictures. I use The New International Dictionary of the Bible.

How to Use These Bible Reference Books

Let's say I wanted to learn more about prophecy and prophets in the Bible, using these books.
First, I'll pick up my concordance and turn to the page where the word "prophet" is listed. In the Strongest Exhaustive Concordance, that listing would begin on page 912. If I've counted right, that's 299 times the word "prophet" is used in the Bible. If I was going to continue my study just from here, I might narrow the field a little bit by only looking up passages where the word "prophet" is used frequently in successive verses; this would eliminate all the times where "prophet" was only mentioned in passing. For instance, this would eliminate "Genesis 20:7 Now return the man's wife, for he is a p," because the word "prophet" is only used this one time in the entire book of Genesis. Now I'll look up the number at the end of most of the earliest entries for the Old Testament, 5566. The Hebrew concordance in the back says "nabi," and refers me to 5547, "naba" and comments there, "to prophesy, speak as a prophet; prophecy has its focus on encouraging or restoring covenant faithfulness, the telling of future events encourages obedience or warns against disobedience." Hmm, interesting, but I'll keep looking.

Moving on to the Nave's Topical Bible, I'll look up "Prophets." The reason I use the Nave's is because sometimes a verse is related to my topic, but the word I'm looking for is not actually used in the verse. A concordance can't find everything. Another great thing is that my topical guide has divided up the massive number of times the word "prophet" was used, so now I can get more specific. Say I wanted to focus on the subcategory "false," which lists passages under labels like "Denunciations against" and "Instances of." It also says, "See Ministers, False," in case you want to read still more related examples. Now I'm really getting somewhere with this topic!

Now I'll look up the first passage in the Nave's under "Prophets>>False>>Denunciations against," which would be Deuteronomy 18:20, in my next reference guide--Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. The commentary lists Deuteronomy Chapter 18, and lumps the discussion of my selected verse under "verses 15-22." I skimmed the left edge of the column until I found the number 20, and read after it that when God told people not to fear false prophets, He meant that people shouldn't be afraid when a false prophet is exposed and calls down curses on them. The prophet is a fraud, so we shouldn't be afraid of any harm this person predicts will come on us.

Now on to my dictionary, because I want to learn more about the word "prophet." My concordance told me the word was "nabi," but this dictionary tells me it's actually "navi" and has an unknown etymology. The entry goes on to say that the use of "navi" has a very specific meaning, sort of like a title for a person who delivers messages as a spokesperson from God. The sense that a prophet is not merely a person who sees the future, but rather an important emissary who speaks for God, is emphasized.

Find These Reference Books

If you have a tight budget, consider using sites like or The first is a totally free concordance for multiple Bible translations, and it also includes some commentary articles and Nave's Topical Bible entries. The other one contains numerous translations, reference materials, and even the ability to look at the original language of the verse.

If you can afford to invest in these books, and can't resist the smell of a new book, you can find the titles I've mentioned at just about any Christian bookstore or online.

Happy Bible studying!


Anonymous said...

Good advice! If a person has the patience to wade through Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whoooooole Bible, as I like to call it, he will find a lot of wisdom there.

One gem I remember was his explanation of John 7:37-39. He says that a Jewish tradition existed in which a priest ceremoniously poured out a vessel of water to conclude the festival and symbolize God's gift of the law--how much greater is the gift of the Spirit, the living water, which Jesus offers!