We all want to spend more time in the Bible, to get more out of the Bible — or at least we say we do. But it's hard and often confusing, and there are so many other demands on our time. And, frankly, we're not entirely sure how to do it.
So here are a few tools to help you make the most of your time in the scriptures.
If you haven't already, read Living by the Book. It will help you get going on Bible study, and it will introduce you to the usual Bible tools — commentaries, dictionaries, and the like. But we don't want to go to those usual Bible tools too quickly. We want to see what's in the passage for ourselves before we see what other people say about it.
To that end, here are some less usual Bible study tools.
Most of us today use the more modern translations, and I totally support that. Words change in meaning over time, and reading the King James Version can be confusing. But it can also be useful — specifically, those annoying "thee"s and "thou"s.
In King James English, thee and thou are singular; ye and you are plural. Without learning any Hebrew or Greek, we can see whether the "you" in the text in singular or plural. Why does that matter? Consider the LORD's command to Joshua: "Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful" (Josh 1:8 NIV).
Now read it in the KJV: "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success."
This promise of prosperity and success was not made to Israel. It was made to Joshua. Does that matter? That's exactly the kind of thing you should wrestle with when you study a passage, but you can't unless you know it's there.
Everyone should read more than one translation when they study a passage. Make the KJV one of the ones you consult.
Maybe you've heard this before: "The Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible." What that means is the idea you're trying to understand in one passage is probably fleshed out in more detail somewhere else. Or maybe there is a concept or theme that appears through the scriptures, like the Son of David. Cross-references are places where someone has done the work of finding some of those places for you.
Many Bibles have a few cross-references. Some have a lot of cross-references. The more the better*, but sometimes you have to make do. *However the Bibles with the most are often those with study notes. That's not necessarily bad, but it's better to do as much as you can on your own before looking at commentaries or study Bible notes.
I recommend the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge — a book of nothing but cross-references. But if you don't want that, get a Bible with as many as you can. Maybe get a KJV and have it do double duty.
Cheats? Once upon a time I told myself I was going to learn Greek. Turns out I just don't have the time and/or energy to put into that project. And knowing a little Greek is probably more dangerous than knowing none.
But there are language tools that are helpful, even to the layman. Enter Greek for the Rest of Us and Hebrew for the Rest of Us. These books are designed to help you "cheat" — get the most out of those tools without actually having to learn the language. The Greek version even has a free online class you can take. Also, both the book and the class will introduce you to a study technique called "phrasing" that is quite helpful.
The Bible is a product of the Holy Spirit working through men who lived in particular times, places, and cultures. Those times, places, and cultures are part of those writings, and learning about them can help us understand the scriptures better. Most people know how the Jews felt about Samaritans, and it informs our reading of the Good Samaritan story. Knowing how they felt about tax collectors, the ocean, and the Messiah will inform your reading of countless other passages. Yes, a good commentary will inform you about some of this, but the goal is to be able to see these things on your own, before you go to the commentaries.
I recommend New Testament Times and Old Testament Times, but there are many good resources out there. Another interesting work is Sketches of Jewish Social Life, but I wouldn't make that your only source for NT background.
There are resources that will ask you questions about the Bible. They're secondary tools in that someone else is guiding you, but they're guiding you to think about the text, not just telling you what it means.
One series I've found useful is the LifeChange series from NavPress. You might not find all the questions useful, but some will be. Other group Bible study resources may offer a good set of questions, too. The Explore by the Book series from The Good Book Company might be useful is this regard, though their selection is limited at this time. Look around and see what you can find to help you think deeply about the text.
After you've gone through your cross-references and language tools, check with your concordance and maybe an atlas to see what else you can learn. Then consult a Bible dictionary for any words that are still bothering you. Only after that should you consult a commentary or three.
And you should consult commentaries. We can learn a lot from the professionals, and they can keep us from going too far afield in our studies. But it's good for us to put the work in for ourselves before we listen to them. And you'll soon learn that the Bible is not as hard to understand as you once thought.