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Considering the Text | Biblical Hermeneutics

As taught by Timothy O'Day.

In this equipping time lesson, we learn the importance of clause and text grammar.

Consider the Text: Clause and Text Observations

The title for today’s lesson may seem scary. It may scare you because it sounds

so boring. Alternatively, it may scare you because it seems intellectually intimidating. Let

me assuage both of those fears right off the bat. First, it isn’t boring. Grammar “is the

whole system and structure that a language uses for communicating effectively, and it is

the means that God used to give us his Word (DeRouchie, 185). Since it is the means

by which God speaks to us, it is by definition impossible to be boring. Imagine I gave

you a letter from Jeff Bezos that described how you could receive one million dollars

from him. You would open it up eagerly and begin to read. You would be excited to

know the rules of grammar as you read that letter because it would give you

an understanding of what the writer communicated to you.

You actually have something better than a letter that would lead to 1 mission dollars.

You have God’s word given to you. Paying attention to grammar is important because

God has revealed himself through the special revelation of his word, which means that

paying attention to grammar is one way that you pay attention to God himself.

Most of you are not going to learn Hebrew and Greek, which is why having so many

translations of the Bible is a blessing for you. But they will only help you if you can

understand English grammar.

Our Goal

Our goal today is simple. We will briefly review how to assess the makeup and

relationship of words, phrases, and clauses. Then we will turn to understanding the

relationship of larger text units as well.

But there is a challenge to this goal. Reading is getting harder in our age

because passive entertainment is robbing us of our ability to pay careful attention. Your

focus and attention are like currency and lots of people are trying to win your business.

While not strictly evil, social media has quite the market share for human focus these

days. Reading the Bible and understanding it is fun, but it is not fun in the same sense

that watching a movie or browsing TikTok is fun. It requires focus and work. But the

reword for this focus and work is glorious.

Starting Small: What is a sentence?

We are going to run through some quick definitions. And you probably know all of

this already, but it is good just to cover some basics. A building block for a sentence is a


Clause: a grammatical construction that is made up of a subject and predicate.

“Timothy taught the class” is an example of a clause. “Ashleigh listened attentively” is

another. There is a subject, “Timothy” in the first clause and “Ashleigh” in the second,

and a predicate.

Predicate: the part of a clause that refers to the state, process, or action associated with

the subject. In the above example, “Taught the class” is the predicate, and, in the second

example, “listened attentively” is the predicate.

Subordinate Clause: A clause that modifies an independent clause (it serves as a

modifier and is embedded in a higher-level clause). An example: “Timothy, who is rather

dull, taught the class.” The main clause remains “Timothy…taught the class,” but the

subordinate clause (“Who is rather dull”) adds information about the subject in this

instance. By itself, the subordinate clause does not stand as a complete sentence

because it doesn’t make complete sense on its own.

Sentence: the main clause with all its subordinate clauses.

Reading requires separating a text into discrete clauses and then evaluating how these

clauses come together to form texts as a whole. If English is your native language, you

do this without even thinking about it. Perhaps you could not define a sentence, a

predicate, or a clause before now, but you know it when you see it.

So why am I spending time talking about this? It is helpful to break sentences into

clauses simply for the purpose of meditation and deeper understanding. Slowing down

is essential for interpretation and understanding. And, ironically, slowing down to break

a text into its various parts will make you a faster reader with greater comprehension of

what you have read.

Let’s practice doing it together. We will not diagram an entire sentence, but we will look

at its major parts.

Exodus 19:4

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’

wings and brought you to myself.

You…have seen (main clause)

What I did to the Egyptians (relative clause)

and how I bore you on eagles’s wings (relative clause describing what Israel

saw) and (how) I brought you to myself (relative clause describing what Israel saw)

Observing Sentences, Paragraphs, and Books

Next week we will look at how to trace the argument in a given passage. For the rest of

our time today, though, we will begin to cover some basic components of reading comprehension that will inform how we trace an argument. There are certain things we

should look for as we read sentences, paragraphs, whole books, and the entire Bible.

The following are areas of observation given in the book Grasping God’s Word that are


Observing Sentences

• Identify the subject and the verb. The subject is the person or thing being discussed

or described. The verb describes what the subject of the sentence is doing.

Take special note of whether verbs are past, present, or future. Also, note if they are

passive or active. Consider Genesis 12:3 as an example of why this observation is

important: God says to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who

dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The

families of the earth are going to be blessed at some time in the future. As you read this,

you could ask, “When will this happen and how will we know?”

You also want to note if the verb is imperative, meaning that it expresses a command.

Ephesians 4:1-3 lays out commands for Christians in how they are to act in light of the

reality of God’s work through Christ: “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to

walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility,

gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity

of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

You should also observe whether or not a verb is active (doing the action) or passive

(receiving the action of the verb).

• Pronouns: A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun (words like I, you, he, she it,

we, you, and they). When you come across a pronoun, you should ask, “What is the

antecedent?” An antecedent is the noun that the pronoun renames.

Consider Hebrews 2:8b-9. After quoting Psalm 8, the author goes on to write, “Now in

putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Can you figure out to what each pronoun is referring? We have man in general at first,

but then the pronouns switch to speak of Jesus, who is the new head of humanity.

• Repetition of words: look for words or phrases that repeat. This helps identify what is

important/what a passage is about.

Consider John 15:1-10, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch

in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he

prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I

have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself

unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you

are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for

apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away

like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and

burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it

will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove

to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If

you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s

commandments and abide in his love.”

• Contrasts: Look for ideas, individuals, and/or items that are contrasted with each

other, noting the differences.

For example, consider Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh

word stirs up anger.” This is a comparison of two ideas. Our speech can assuage or

form anger.

Or consider 1 John 1:5-7, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to

you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with

him while we walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in

the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of

Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

• Comparisons: Look for ideas, individuals, and/or items that are compared, noting the


For example, Proverbs 25:28, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and

left without walls.” Or James 3:3-6 in discussing the tongue.

• Lists: Anytime two or more items are mentioned, view this as a list. Write out the list

and explore its significance.

You could do this with Galatians 5:22-23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,

patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things

there is no law.” You could also consider Galatians 5:19-21 as a contrasting list. See

also 1 John 2:16

• Cause and Effect: Look for cause and effect relationships in sentences.

Consider again Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs

up anger.” If you speak with gentleness, the effect tends to be peace. But if you are

harsh with your words, you should expect a fight.

• Figures of Speech: Identify expressions that convey an image, using words in a

sense other than the normal literal sense. In doing this, try to visualize the figure of

speech and ask what is conveyed by it.

Think back to Exodus 19:4, “‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and

how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’” What is conveyed by this

idea of “eagles’ wings”? Consider also Isaiah 40:31 and Psalm 119:105.

• Conjunctions: Notice terms that join units like “and,” “but,” and “for.” What is being

connected by these connecting words?

It could be showing contrast like Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the

free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Or it could be showing a conclusion like Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore,

brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and

acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” This therefore is the conclusion

based on the first 11 chapters of Romans.

Observing Paragraphs

• Questions and answers: Note if the passage is built on a question and answer


Paul will often ask and answer rhetorical questions. Consider Romans 6:1-2, “What

shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!”

Paul does this in 3:1, 5, 9, 27-31; 4:1, 9; 6:15; 7:1, 7, 13; 8:31-35; 11:1, 7, 11). This is a

key way to discern what the author is talking about.

• Dialogue: Look to see if the text includes dialogue and identify who is speaking to

whom. Then ask, “What is the point of the dialogue?” “Are other people around

listening to the conversation?” “Is this an argument, discussion, or sermon?”

Consider John 3:1-15 as a test case.

• Means: Note if a sentence indicates that something was done by means of

someone/something. You can usually insert the phrase “by means of” into the


Look at Romans 8:13 as an example, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die,

but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” If by means of

the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

• Purpose/result statements: This is a more specific type of “means,” often answer

why. Purpose and result are similar and sometimes distinguishable. In a purpose

statement, you usually can insert the phrase “in order that.” In a result clause, you

can insert the phrase “so that.”

• General to specific and specific to general: Note if there is a general statement (main

idea) followed by specifics of that idea. Find the general statements that are

followed by specific examples or applications of the general statement (you can also

find specific statements that are then summarized as a general one).

Galatians 5:16 is an example of a general statement, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and

you will not gratify the desires of the flesh,” that is then followed up by some specific

details of what it means to walk in the flesh (verses 19-21a) and the Spirit (verses 22:-


• Conditional clauses: A clause can present conditions by which some action or

consequence will result. Often these statements use an “if…then” construction (but

the “then” is often implied in English). Determine exactly what the required

conditional action is in these statements.

Consider 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The

old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Being part of the new creation isn’t

something automatically applied to all people. You must be in Christ. Consider also 1

John 1:6, 9.

• Action/Roles of God and man: Identify actions or roles that the text ascribes to God

and to man and ask, “What does God do in this passage? What does man do in this

passage? What is the connection between what God does and what man does?”

Look at Ephesians 5:1-2 as an example, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved

children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant

offering and sacrifice to God.”

• Emotional terms and the tone of the passage: Note the overall tone of the passage

(happy, sad, matter of fact, encouraging). Emotional terms can help you discern this.

Compare Colossians 3:1-4 with Galatians 3:1-4.

“ If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ

is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things that are above, not on

things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ

was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit

by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the

Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in

vain—if indeed it was in vain?”

Observing Several Paragraphs and Whole Books

• Connections to other paragraphs and episodes: Ask, “How does the passage

connect to the one that precedes it and the one that follows it? Also, how does it

connect to the rest of the Bible? Broad reading helps on this last question.

Reading Mark 8:22-26 in light of what comes before (8:14-21) and what comes after

(8:27-30) makes sense of why the man healed of blindness was healed in stages.

• Shifts and pivots in the story: Is the passage being used as a key to understanding a

dramatic shift in the story?

For example, Ephesians 4:1 turns from what God has done for his people to the

implications for Christian living.

• Interchange: Does the passage shift back and forth between scenes or characters?

Mark 6:7-31 is an example of an interchange. Here we see the story of John the

Baptist’s death situated between Jesus sending out his disciples and their triumphant

return. We should ask, “Why tell the story in this order?”

• Chiasm: Does the passage have a chiastic arrangement? This practice was heavily

used in the OT as a means of setting up the boundaries of a text and helping the

reader see the central idea in a passage.

Genesis 11:1-9 is an example of this being used in a passage, but chiastic structures

can be used over chapters and whole books as well in order to reveal a central idea.

Psalm 76:1 reveals a chiasm on a small scale

a. In Judah

b. God is known

b. His name is great

a. In Israel


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