Friday, June 3, 2011

Bible Study Tips: Translate the Pronouns

As I have touched on in a number of past articles the role of the bible teacher is not to give the answers but is rather to equip the students to engage the text of Scripture so that they might be taught of God. There is a world of difference between coming to a conclusion based upon your own study and learning something because someone else told you it was so.

A few months ago a dear brother in the Lord who was frustrated that his church did not have any classes that taught people how to study the bible for themselves decided to start his own study group (with approval of the elders of his church). He wanted the group to wrestle with the text themselves and be forced to think about what it said rather than relying on their study bibles or commentaries. He recognized, however, that there were certain basic study techniques that would be helpful in order to avoid just reading into the text everybody’s subjective interpretations. We discussed a few basic approaches that help to keep the study on track and focused on what the author is actually saying. That conversation has led me to introduce a new category to the blog that focuses on bible study techniques that I have found helpful and would like to share. Most (if not all) of what I share here is not new or unique but unfortunately these techniques are often not taught in many local church bible studies. My prayer is that this will be a category that will allow people to add a few more tools to their bible study toolkit that will allow them to go deeper in their study of God’s word.

The first tip that I would like to share is the technique of translating the pronouns. Often when we read we begin to move along at a quick pace which causes our minds to “fill in” information rather than carefully observing what is actually on the page. In order to understand what is being said we need to be clear on who is speaking, who is being addressed, and who or what is being talked about. This sounds like something that would be easy to keep straight but if more than one person or group is in view in the text then it can be easy to get the references mixed up. This can lead us to misunderstand the comparisons and contrasts that are often crucial to biblical arguments. This is particularly important in reading letters and epistles where the bulk of the material is logical argumentation. By translating the pronouns we can avoid confusion, be sure we are thinking through the argument, and can often see things in the text we had not previously noticed.

The technique is simple and requires no special training or knowledge. All that is required is to understand what a pronoun is and how it works. Pronouns are simply words that take the place of a noun. Examples of English pronouns include: he, her, hers, herself, him, himself, his, it, itself, myself, ours, ourselves, she, them, themselves, they, us, you, yours, yourself, etc. Once we are able to identify where the pronouns are all that we need to do is to stop every time we see one and fill in the “who” or “what” the pronoun refers to.

For example in the sentence “Sally has to go to work today because she has much to do.” The pronoun is “she” and refers to “Sally”. If we encountered this sentence in a study we would fill it in the following way: “Sally has to go to work today because [Sally] has much to do”.

Let’s look at an example from a biblical passage:  In Matthew Chapter 23 verse 37 Jesus says “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” This lament over Jerusalem is often interpreted to be a universal proclamation on the part of the Lord regarding his sorrow over His inability to save some people due to their unwillingness to come to Him. By translating the pronouns in this verse, however, we see that this verse doesn’t support that interpretation. Let’s take a look:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it [Jerusalem]! How often would I [Jesus] have gathered your [Jerusalem’s] children together as a hen gathers her [the hen’s] brood under her [the hen’s] wings, and you [Jerusalem] would not!”

The interpretation above doesn’t work well because if we look carefully we see that in this verse the group who “would not” is not the same group that Christ desires to gather. There must be something else going on here. He is addressing Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets, and what he says is that He would often have gathered Jerusalem’s children under His wings. Lots of people read through this quickly and don’t catch that Jesus is speaking to one group (Jerusalem) about another group (Jerusalem’s children). By translating the pronouns we have highlighted a detail that requires us to dig a little deeper in order to see what Christ is intending to convey with these words.

It doesn’t seem right to leave this hanging like this so I will go ahead and give what I believe to be the solution even though it requires using a couple other tools that I will not introduce until future posts in this category.

Since Jerusalem is a city and cities do not kill people we know that Jerusalem is intended to represent someone or something. If we go back and look at the context of this verse we see that it appears right at the end of a scathing rebuke that Jesus delivers against the Scribes and Pharisees and right before His prophesy regarding the destruction of the Temple. All of this material is contained in a single teaching segment within Matthew’s gospel and so we see that the lament over Jerusalem supports broader themes that carry through from Christ’s rebuke to the destruction of the Temple. For a few different reasons the reference to Jerusalem would appear to be a reference to the Jewish religious leadership. If so, this lament should be understood as part of Jesus’ rebuke.

The very people who were responsible for guiding Israel (Jerusalem) and should have been pointing the people (their “children”) to Christ were in fact unwilling to do so. Jesus is pointing out that throughout the history of Israel the leaders killed the prophets of God and were often unwilling to provide God honoring leadership. The leaders at the time He came were no different even becoming an obstacle between the people and their messiah. The result was to be the destruction of the Temple and the overturning of the power structure upon which they relied. God would deal directly with the people through Christ and the Holy Spirit. He would gather where they would have prevented it. This passage is an important link between the rebuke of the leaders and the prophesy of the destruction of the Temple and without slowing down to identify the distinction between the groups addressed in the pronouns it is easy to miss.

May the Lord bless you in your studies and to Him be the Glory!

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