Here is the bottom line right at the start: to successfully study a big book you have to make it a priority and allocate time to it, or it is not going to happen.
But don’t worry, this is not a “you ought to… (do this; do that; do more)” kind of letter/post. Instead, I would rather whet your appetite. Imagine…
Imagine that over the course of this coming year you manage to do some in-depth study of one larger book in the Bible, getting a good grip on it and perhaps even preparing a series of lectures on it. What would you gain? How would that make you feel? What would it do for your walk with God next year?
What counts as large depends on what you have been in the habit of doing. If it is a new thing for you, it might be a longer epistle, for instance Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Hebrews. Or, if you’d like to chew off a bit more, one of the gospels or Acts. And if you have experience doing this sort of thing, especially if you are involved in teaching a Bible course, maybe you should go for one of the really big ones in the Old Testament; there are quite a few to choose from.
A Few of My Big Ones
If you have a full time involvement with a Bible course like the SBS, you may not have a choice: it is part of your job. This is how it was for me in my first year in SBS. We were a team of four people, and each book of the Bible had to be taught. We had a few guest speakers come in, but not many, so there were quite a few books for each of us left to cover. I don’t remember very well what I taught in the New Testament, but I do remember that in the Old Testament, I took on Genesis and Isaiah (among others).
To put it mildly: that was a bit much. I remember sitting in a hotel room late at night on my way back from the Netherlands, where I had attended the wedding of my sister, squeezing in another reading of Genesis. I think I managed to do ten readings, which is not all that much if you are going to teach a book. When it came to teaching Isaiah, I was still struggling to figure out how to read and understand Isaiah’s lyric visions of the distant future myself. As a result, I had little time and energy left to prepare the actual presentation.
Both lecture weeks were okay, but they were not great. It was a start, however, and I returned to these two books later. For my dissertation I chose Isaiah to work with; the topic was how to interpret eschatological or end time prophecy in the Old Testament, and I mostly worked with passages from Isaiah to come up with answers. My supervisor, Ron Smith, insisted I had to read Isaiah fifty times. This sounds like a lot, but if you have six months to do this, it means two afternoons of reading per week. By the time I was done, I had a far better understanding of the book and a far better foundation for teaching it. It is the book that I have taught more than any other.
Genesis I picked up some years later, when I realised we needed to give our students better input on the early chapters of Genesis. In this case, it is not so much the text that is difficult, because for the most part it is a wonderfully simple story. The challenge is the questions it raises. Coming up with an overview of possible answers required working through a lot of secondary material dealing with science and evolution, ancient world views, and the question of genre or type of literature.
My story with the book of Revelation is different yet again. For many years, I did not want to teach it; I preferred to let guest speakers do this. For one, I did not want to teach Revelation unless I had had ample time to dive into it and get to the point of feeling I understood it well enough to do a good job teaching it. There was no opportunity for this until the autumn of 1998 or 2000. Around that time, all our candidates for teaching the book in the upcoming Core Course were not available and I had several months with few responsibilities – in other words, time. It was great. I loved studying the book and reading about it (including two commentaries on Revelation), and I have been teaching Revelation ever since.
Maybe you are not a teacher. But even if you are not going to teach anything, it may still be a powerful and growth inducing exercise to take a larger book and give it more than your average reading time.
Goal + Timing
If you could take the time, what is a book that you would like to know better? What is a book that intrigues you, that you are curious about, that holds a special interest for you? Give it a thought, select a candidate, and continue reading with this book in mind.
Now, the last month of the year, is an excellent time to get started. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve you may have a bit more time than usual. Then comes the beginning of a new calendar year. Regardless of whether you start right after Christmas or on January 1, here’s what is important in order to succeed: be clear on your aim and be clear on your timing.
Be clear on your timing. What is your window of time to work on this? For me, with Revelation, it was a time period of three or four months, in which I had a lot of time I could allocate to it. For Isaiah I had even more time. Outside of a university or seminary setting this will of course look different. But what is a good time span to be working on this and how much time per week can you put into it? This will also help you to test whether the aim you set for yourself is realistic.
Be clear on your aim. You may well want to define it yourself, but it will probably include being able to read the book with understanding, seeing implications for your life, meeting God in the process, and being made alive by his word. You may also have a few specific questions you want to incorporate into your aim.
If you study in order to prepare teaching, your aim may be to have a clear outline and lecture plan, so that you will be able to help others come to the point of reading the book with understanding.
At this point, you are only one or two steps away from having a SMART goal. For one, put it in writing, so you have a record for yourself; written goals have a far higher likelihood of being accomplished than non-written goals.
“SMART,” by the way, is an acronym summarizing five criteria for good goal setting:
- S for specific
- M for measurable
- A for attainable
- R for relevant
- T for time orientated (your goal needs a deadline and a time frame)
You may still need to make your aim more specific. Try to list specific steps that you will include in your process of study, for instance: read through the book X times, spend an hour (or two) studying a specific passage, read a particular introduction to the book or a commentary etc. Further down in this letter you will find more ideas of what you could do.
To check if your goal is realistic or “attainable,” add up the estimated number of hours needed for each step; does this seem doable?
Deciding the Key Questions
When it comes to how to go about studying your book, obviously, much depends on your circumstances, on your experience, and on how much time you can reasonably expect to invest into this. It also depends on the book you have chosen. For each book we have to figure out what the crucial questions are, and at least some of these will be unique for that book.
A few examples to give the idea:
- 1 John is written evidence that simplicity can be misleading. In spite of the simple language in this book, I do not find it easy to understand it. The way John talks in circles confuses me. If this were my study project, I would trace themes and see if I could reorganize the ideas in the book in a way (perhaps a mind map) that I find easier to grasp.
- Ezekiel is different from 1 John; this book is well structured in large units. It is also highly repetitive in content (but certainly not in form of communication). A crucial question therefore is: why does it need this near-monotonous repetition? And how does the form of communication differ from unit to unit?
- Jeremiah, in contrast, is at first sight a confusing chronological mess. In order to make sense of it, I would have to piece together for each passage for which this is possible where it fits on the timeline of Jeremiah’s life.
- Isaiah speaks of things that are near in time as well as of the distant future. Much of the latter deals with the age to come and the kingdom or rule of Yahweh. It is not always easy – to put it mildly – to tell them apart, especially since these two aspects can be mixed in one and the same passage or verse. A crucial question therefore is: what deals with the near or historical (Assyria, Babylonia, exile) and what deals with the eschatological, with God’s ultimate purpose? Where is it mixed or both? And how are we to understand the rich imagery Isaiah uses to speak of this distant reality of a renewed creation?
- For the historical books a key question is what their purpose or message is.
- When studying one of the books of the law the challenge is how to read the commandments and how to give them application for today.
Since so much depends on the book and on you, it is impossible to present a detailed study guide that fits all (but see the simple form or template at the end of this issue). This is why it is so important to spend a bit of time planning, and why I emphasized getting your aim and your time frame clear before you start. I also encourage you to evaluate from time to time how it is going and if necessary to adjust your aims and your plans on the way. It may turn out you need longer. It may be you need to cut certain things out in order to get done. That’s fine.
Beyond these general guidelines, here are a few more specific ones:
- Already stated, but it bears repeating: choose a book that intrigues you, one that you are curious about.
- Read the book many times (and define “many” for yourself); this alone will be a tremendous gain, regardless of what else you do.
- Do a lot of colour coding. For starters: repetitions, personal names, geographical names, and “picture words” (metaphors and other figures of speech) are always good to mark.
- If you print out the text of your book, make sure you leave a broad margin, and make notes. I have frequently used this format for my lecture notes, when teaching verse by verse or paragraph by paragraph.
- Start a list with questions and problems that occur to you, things you’d like to know or would like to dig into, passages you would like to know more about, background information you wonder about etc. Make sure you keep this list up-to-date. You may not be able to do everything on your list, but at least you will know what to choose from.
- Read a commentary or a selection of articles. Again, this depends a lot on your interest and on the amount of time you have available. You will have to be selective, so choose wisely what you read: it had better be worth your time.
- Select passages you want to look at in more detail.
- This link leads you to a Google Drive folder with a study module for Ephesians that may give you some more ideas for your study project or even a model to follow. Especially if you have not done any such study before, you may want to start with this shorter book anyway!
If You Are Doing This to Prepare a Lecture
It is not my intention to write on lecture preparation as such (this is a letter/post, not a book). However, I do want to include this short section on studying a large book when lecture preparation is your ultimate goal. It is about selecting great, engaging, and relevant content:
- What has caught your interest?
- What have you found exciting?
- What has been a great new discovery for you?
- What is helpful to get a grasp on the book? What does one need to know to make sense of it?
- What are the obvious questions that your audience will have about the book?
Here’s one more thought: The lecture plan is not so much something we create, it is something we discover. It is already there: in the book, in your audience (their setting, their composition, their needs), and in God’s mind. Bring the three together – what you find in the book, what you know about your audience, and what the Spirit is whispering – and the shape and pattern of your lecture will emerge. It will need fine-tuning, of course, but its rough form is right there, implied in the text you are studying. “Implied” is the key word here; after all, it is this text that you want your audience to understand in the end. This is why it is so important to spend a significant proportion of your time studying the book itself.
If You Are Doing This with Little Time to Prepare
Two final thoughts for this all too frequent predicament: you are running out of preparation time even before you get started.
Quick draft. In this case it is vital to be quick to come up with a first draft or rough outline of your lecture, so you can focus on information and material you will need.
Shortcut. You may be able to use other people’s notes or PowerPoint. Be careful, however. It has not worked well for me to teach from someone else’s notes or PowerPoint. I will mine them for ideas, especially to keep me from overlooking an important topic, but I have to make them my own to make it work. Perhaps I can only be confident and passionate in giving away what is (or has become) truly mine – the way Ezekiel and John had to eat a book before they could continue prophesying!
What has been your experience studying a big book? Do you have a tip for someone having to prepare lectures on one of the “giants”? Leave a comment!
Template for Planning a ‘Big Book’ Study Project
The book I will study:
Hours per week / month:
When will I do this:
Number of times I aim to read this book:
Secondary literature (introductions, commentaries etc.) I want to read or look at:
Some pertinent questions for this books:
A few things I would like to understand better:
New questions that occur to me as I am studying: