Monday, October 17, 2011

Bible Study Tips: Applying the Neglected Passages

Up to this point most of the bible study tips have focused on things that to help with the observation or interpretation phase of study. Today I want to introduce a tip that applies primarily to the application phase.

It is sometimes difficult to apply lessons from texts that are not obviously doctrinal. Those texts, however, do provide important truths that we should pay attention to. Sections such as the “begat’s” for example, are rarely studied and if they are read at all they are skimmed quickly. We should recognize, however, that by skipping over these texts we are depriving ourselves of some of the means that the Lord has provided for our development.

Paul instructs Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) and he reminds the believers in Rome that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4 ESV). Therefore we do not want to ignore or neglect any of the scripture.

Our example will be from the second chapter of the book of Ezra which is one of those passages that is often skimmed through. (I didn’t include the entire chapter out of copyright considerations)

            Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town. They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel: the sons of Parosh, 2,172. The sons of Shephatiah, 372. The sons of Arah, 775. The sons of Pahath-moab, namely the sons of Jeshua and Joab, 2,812. The sons of Elam, 1,254. The sons of Zattu, 945. The sons of Zaccai, 760. The sons of Bani, 642. The sons of Bebai, 623. The sons of Azgad, 1,222. The sons of Adonikam, 666. The sons of Bigvai, 2,056. The sons of Adin, 454. The sons of Ater, namely of Hezekiah, 98. The sons of Bezai, 323. The sons of Jorah, 112. The sons of Hashum, 223. The sons of Gibbar, 95. The sons of Bethlehem, 123. The men of Netophah, 56. The men of Anathoth, 128. The sons of Azmaveth, 42. The sons of Kiriath-arim, Chephirah, and Beeroth, 743. The sons of Ramah and Geba, 621. [THE LIST CONTINUES TO NEARLY THE END OF THE CHAPTER]

What are we to do with a list like this? How often would we use this passage to instruct, encourage, or rebuke one another? Probably not often, but by asking a few basic questions about this passage we will see that there is valuable teaching here. First, we begin with the basic journalistic questions so we can understand the biblical passage. We then follow up with a few questions about the similarities between those in the biblical narrative and ourselves.

  1. Who are these people?

We know from the text that these people are “the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia.” That is to say that they are the descendants of Jews who were taken from their land by the Babylonians. We also see that they have maintained their genealogies. They have not fully assimilated into the society of their captors but have continued to be a distinct minority with its own identity.

  1. What are they doing?

They are returning to their ancestral homeland. They are gathered together to go back to Judea and if we read a bit ahead we see that they intend to rebuild the temple and reestablish the ceremonial worship of God according to the Law.

  1. When is this happening?

This is happening about 70 years after their ancestors were taken into captivity. The Babylonians, who had conquered their land, had now come under the rule of the Persians. Just as promised ahead of time through the prophet Jeremiah the Persian king is allowing them to return.

  1. Where is this happening?

They are moving from Mesopotamia to Judea.

  1. How is this happening?

If we back up a bit in the book of Ezra we see that king Cyrus had issued a decree: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:2-4 ESV)

  1. Why is this happening?

For these kinds of texts the “why” is often one of the most important questions. In this case we find the answer back in the first chapter. “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing” (Ezra 1:1 ESV)

  1. How is the condition of the people in the passage similar to our own?

In bible study the focus of this question should always be in a redemptive context. We are really asking how are these fallen people in circumstances similar to us. In this case we see that they are God’s people who were in a kingdom that was not their home and were longing to be back in their homeland. They are preparing to return.

  1. What does this passage reveal about God’s character?

This passage shows at least two important things. First, it shows that God keeps His promises. These people are returning home in fulfillment of a promise that God had made. Second, it shows that God is sovereign because He worked through all the various circumstances to ensure that His prophesies would be fulfilled.

There are many other questions that could be added. Basically they would focus on two categories. First, what is similar or different about us and the people in the text? Second, what does the text reveal about God. Just with these two, however, we see that the second chapter of Ezra is in fact a doctrinal and encouraging passage.

This list of names (that most people skip) is a testimony to the trustworthiness of God, that He has the power to bring about His ends, and keeps His promises. What is more we recognize that we are also a people exiled from home in a place that is often hostile to us but have the promise of God that He will protect us and that, if faithful, we will return home to be with Him. We can be encouraged not just in an abstract sense (though that would be sufficient) but also because we have the very names as evidence that the Lord has kept similar promises in the past. Our hope is in a Lord who keeps His promises and does not abandon those who remain faithful to Him.

By taking some time to ask a few basic questions we can find relevant teaching and application in every part of the scripture, even those that seem to be rather distant from our own circumstances. It just takes a little bit of thought and a few well placed questions. As a teacher of mine used to say, “When you come across a passage that seems a bit dry you can usually make it less dry by applying a bit of perspiration.” I pray that the Lord would continue to bless you in your studies.


  1. You neglected one of the main reasons scholars study this passage: by comparing it to the parallel passage in Nehemiah 7, they can get a good feel for how well the original list was separately transmitted down through the centuries before the meticulous Masoretes took over.

  2. TWM, thanks for pointing that out. There are certainly a lot of other things that could be said about this passage. My intent in the post was only to show that the average person could get at content that they could apply even from these kinds of passages if they ask a few basic questions.Trained Scholars of course will have other important concerns as well.