Reading the Bible for Understanding

At Bible Feed our aim is to motivate you to read your Bible as you’ve never read it before.  If you listen to or read something here and think; “I’m going to have a closer look at that part of the Bible myself” then we’ve achieved our goal in some small way. Even better if you’re able to do that with other people, discuss it and meditate on it together.  That, after all, is what most of the text of the Bible was designed for; communities of people reading the Bible for understanding and learning together.

Familiarity v Understanding

Getting stuck into reading the Bible is not an easy task and so there are many reading plans out there to help you structure it.  These tend to break it down into a daily chapter or chapters from different parts of the Bible.  This is good and helpful in achieving familiarity with the Bible, but I find there are different ways of reading that are perhaps more important in getting to a good understanding of passages.

Let me give you an example I experienced recently.  Take a look at a short section in Isaiah 42:1-4:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights; 

I have put my Spirit upon him; 

he will bring forth justice to the nations. 

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, 

or make it heard in the street; 

a bruised reed he will not break, 

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; 

he will faithfully bring forth justice. 

He will not grow faint or be discouraged 

till he has established justice in the earth; 

and the coastlands wait for his law.

Isaiah 42:1-4

This is one of a number of short sections in Isaiah’s prophecy sometimes called ‘servant songs’.  It is obviously about a servant of God who is being called to do some really important things.  But who is the servant?  If you take the passage in isolation (as you might do in a daily reading plan) and follow the cross references you’ll find that verse 2 is quoted in Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus, (Matthew 12:18-20), so you’d probably reach the conclusion that the servant Isaiah is talking about is Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah.

A different way of reading the Bible for understanding

However, if you were to take a different reading approach, you would arrive at a different answer.  If you read the broader section of Isaiah (let’s say chapters 40-44) ignoring the chapter breaks as though it is continuous text as it is in the Isaiah Scroll found by the Dead Sea, then you’ll find that the servant is named a few times.

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen.

Isaiah 41:8-9

Who is blind but my servant? … this is a people plundered and looted.

Isaiah 42:19-22

Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel … “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen”.

Isaiah 43:10

Fear not, O Jacob my servant.

Isaiah 44:2

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant.

Isaiah 44:21

The servant is named as Israel, that is, the nation collectively. In fact across the chapters that include the servant songs (Isaiah 40-55) the servant is mentioned a total of 19 times but only 7 of these appear in the sections called the servant songs.  Clearly the theme of the servant is woven through this whole section of Isaiah’s work. 

Reading the whole section enables you to pick up the flow of thought that Isaiah is communicating.  The servant begins as Israel and they are called to represent God’s justice to other nations, to be a light for the nations.  However, they were blind and deaf to this calling so the prophet gradually (from chapter 49) introduces one individual as the servant who will do what the nation failed to do – and in doing it, (see Isaiah 53), he is despised and rejected!

We first see an ideal picture of Israel bringing blessings on many nations. But through the faltering of that plan, a greater plan emerges from the prophet’s words:  that through one suffering servant, all nations will be blessed in ways which were previously unimaginable.

This all shows us much more than reading Isaiah 42 out of context does.  It shows us that Israel’s failure is nothing less than a representation of humanity’s failure but that the character of God is revealed as patient, longsuffering, and willing to continue working towards saving us even through the terrible suffering of just one man, his servant and his Son.  So Matthew is right to pick up the servant narratives about Israel and demonstrate in his quotation of Isaiah, and in his own narrative, that Jesus of Nazareth finally fulfilled those things that the nation was called to do.

So, by all means follow a daily reading plan, (this is a really good habit to get into!), but don’t forget to try different ways of reading the Bible for understanding as well, to deepen your appreciation of what the scriptures are trying to teach.

Further resources

We held a live online webinar that was all about reading the Bible in 2020. You can watch the first session here, which includes links to the subsequent two sessions, or on our YouTube channel.

Our series of podcasts of the Gospel of Matthew uses many tools to help develop good Bible reading for understanding as we walk through the narrative of Matthew looking at things like context, quotations, genre and literary design. The first episode is here, and you’ll find links to the subsequent episodes at the end of the show notes.