With the recent launch of John Piper’s new book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally, we have a lot of Bible reading questions in the APJ inbox, including this question from Philip: “Dear Pastor John, I’ve really enjoyed the way you go through individual verses and explain them very clearly by breaking them down and explaining each part. I understand that meditating on small parts of Scripture can help us really suck all the nourishment from it, but sometimes my problem is in understanding entire chapters or larger sections of the Bible. I read something like John 8, and although I can understand small parts of it, I really get lost and fail to follow the entire flow of Jesus’s arguments, or where the chapter is going. Sometimes reading a psalm can be quite incoherent to me too, and I don’t quite get how one sentence flows into another. Could you help me figure out ways to understand larger sections of Scripture as a whole rather than just small chunks disconnected from other parts?”
Let me see if I can help first with an analogy — namely, an analogy of a jigsaw puzzle — and then with an exhortation about the hard work of seeing a whole chapter as whole, and then give an example from my own experience.
"When you’re unsure how the Bible fits together, don’t give up. Read slowly and prayerfully. Write down what you see."
Think of a larger unit of Scripture, like a chapter or a few paragraphs or maybe several chapters, think of it as a jigsaw puzzle, a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. For me, this is just like the way I go about it. There are 500 pieces laid in front of you, and as you look at them, they do not look at all like the painting on the front of the box. They are just one big jumble. That’s how the words and phrases and clauses might look to you in a chapter in the Bible when you try to think of the chapter as a whole. There are just lots and lots of words and phrases and clauses that might say some nice things, but my, oh my, they don’t make one big picture.
How do you go about seeing the whole picture instead of 500 scattered pieces? Of course, the Bible doesn’t have a picture on the top of the box. You’re working a little harder here. How do you see a chapter as a whole with a main point with all the pieces fitting together to make that main point instead of just seeing 60 or 70 scattered clauses and phrases? That’s the goal. You take one piece, right? I love to do puzzles like this because I love figuring this out. You take one of the pieces, and you look at the piece very carefully. You don’t just keep scanning your eyes over 500 pieces superficially: “Oh, let me see something. Oh, let me see.” No, no, no, no. You get nowhere that way.
You take one piece, and you examine it very carefully. You notice that half of this piece is solid red and the other half is solid gold. You notice that the little protrusion at the top is split in half, and half of it is gold and half of it is red. From this, you infer with careful thinking that there is another piece somewhere here somewhere that will be half red and half gold. Instead of a protrusion, there’s going to be an indention in the bottom of the piece leading up into half-red and half-gold. Now you’re looking very specifically for that piece. You scan the 500 pieces this time looking specifically for that. You find maybe six or seven or eight pieces that have this half red, half gold, and you slide them around looking for how they can fit together. You push them off to the side of the table in a corner, and you find one or two that fit — and then another and another.
I know not how the light is shed, nor understand this lens. I only know that there are eyes in pencils and in pens.
Pretty soon, you realize that you’ve got five, six, seven, eight pieces all fitting together. You notice, “Oh my, this is a robe draped over the arm of a throne. That’s going to go here probably.” You set that mid-size unit aside now, and you do the same thing all over again with another piece with its peculiar characteristics, fitting the pieces together as you go. That’s how you build little pieces into mid-sized units. We might call those two or three verses or a paragraph, and we’ve got maybe 5 paragraphs we’ve got to fit together. Now you’ve got several, maybe three, four, five, six, seven, eight mid-size units, and you should be able to discern of those three, four, five verses in each unit: What’s the main point there because of how they fit together?
Now, here’s my exhortation: one of the reasons we don’t move from the part to the whole in reading the Bible is because it is very hard work. It is hard work to fit all the mid-size pieces together so as to see the whole. For most of us, I certainly include myself here, we simply cannot do this in our head. There’s where people run into trouble. They’re reading devotions, and they’re trying to do this in their head. Well, I can’t even begin to do this in my head. We have to do it on paper. We have to write it down. Now, I don’t think there are computer programs good enough to do this yet on screen because of all the jumbled jotting and line drawing and circling I have to do. We have to jot down the main point, “The red and gold mid-sized unit means robe over the arm of a throne,” kind of a thing.
And then we jot down the next main point of the next mid-size unit and so on until we’ve got it on our piece of paper — six, seven, eight sentences — which now each one sums up the mid-sized unit in the chapter, in the larger unit we’re trying to understand. Then we try to go about seeing how those mid-sized units relate to each other. My exhortation is simply: don’t give up on that. Use a pencil and a paper. Draw lines between them. You just have no idea how they might all fit together. You’ll be amazed at what you’re able to see by trying to fit those mid-size units and their main point together to make the larger piece.
“One of God’s peculiar glories is that he gets victory and exercises dominion through the weak and insignificant.”
Now, here’s my closing example of how I’ve done it recently. I’ve been baffled over the years by the main point of Psalm 8. It seems like the main point is, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” because it begins with that and it ends with that (Psalm 8:1, 9). That’s a wonderful, structural thing to see. But in the middle, it has babies who cry out, and God gets victory over his foes through the mouth of infants (Psalm 8:2). I jotted that down recently. I even made a Look at the Book about this just a few weeks ago. I jotted that down.
It’s like, “Okay, so the meaning of the first part of the Psalm, just the first couple of verses, seems to be: God gets victory over his foes by babies saying things.” I have no idea how that works. None. That’s just what it says. I jotted that down. And then the next unit, which seems just totally different: “I behold your heavens and your handiwork. What is man that you are mindful of him? And through this man, who is just a little lower than the heavenly beings, you govern the whole world with fish and birds” (Psalm 8:3–8, my paraphrase).
I tried, “Now, what’s the main point?” I’ve put the few pieces together. I want to jot down on my piece of paper the main point of this mid-size unit. I jotted down, “God exercises dominion over his earth through insignificant man who, compared to the stars, seems like nothing.” As soon as I wrote it, I saw, “Oh, I get it. The babies are insignificant, and God works his victories through babies. And man is insignificant, and God exercises dominion through man.” And then he ends it, “How great is his glory and his majesty?” (Psalm 8:9). Surely, then, the point is: one of the peculiar aspects of the majesty and glory of God is that he gets his victories and he exercises his dominion through the weak and insignificant things. Amen, amen. Praise God. That’s exactly the use that Jesus makes of it, or that Matthew makes of it, as Jesus enters the city on Palm Sunday where the babies are crying out, “Hosanna” — and he’s on a donkey, of all things (see Matthew 21:1–16).
The point is: look at the pieces very carefully. Fit them together in mid-size units. Jot down the main points of the mid-size units until you have them all on a half sheet of paper, and then think and think, and pray and pray, and think and pray and think and pray, and organize and draw lines, and try to fit them all together until they fall into place and you see how these five, six, seven, eight, nine points of the mid-size units are in a flow that make one big overarching point. You will be surprised, if you take a pencil and paper and do this, what you will see.