Ministry Resources

Understanding the Bible

You are about to begin a very important activity: the careful, methodical study of the Bible. To understand the Bible, you must do more than merely read it. Reading it has value but often fails to make clear the relationship between different parts of the Bible. When you study the Bible with an organized plan in mind, you write down important findings that help you to see the unity that is present throughout the Scriptures. Series written by Dorothy L. Johns.

Application-Studying by the Book Method

You are now ready to begin the actual application of synthetic study to Habakkuk. Once you have done a synthetic study, you can then go into as much detail in each verse as you have time for (intensive study), and you can relate and compare the book with other books in the Bible (extensive study). So, the synthetic method is not an end of Bible study, but a beginning. Our purpose is to teach you to do independent synthetic Bible study. This lesson will be a pattern to follow, and I hope you will choose another book of the Bible when it is completed and make the same application of your skills to that book.

Perhaps you should plan to do this lesson in more than one sitting. It involves repeated readings, note taking, and summarizing of material. The directions may look short, but they will take time to do. Just follow step by step and take as much time as you need to finish each step before going on to the next. Be sure to try to answer the study questions before looking up the answers we have given. There is more than one correct answer to some of them. Do not change your answers to conform to ours unless yours really need revising

Steps in Observation

The steps of the synthetic method are a repetition of the pattern: read, observe, make notes as you go; read, observe, make notes as you go. This continues until you have found all the information you set out to find, regardless of how many readings it takes. The whole idea is to gain familiarity with the book you are studying. Reading it through at one sitting each time you come to a reading step is the way to gain that familiarity.

Our instructions may tell you to read the book once to find certain information. If you do not find that information the first time, you may need to read it another time. The opposite is also true; you may be reading to find certain information, and at the same time see some other facts that are important to the study. You can note what you see at that time and perhaps omit one of the readings. You are going to be reading the book a number of times, anyway, so that you begin to live in the book. The end result of your study should be that the book becomes a part of you—both in your Christian living and in your sharing of the Word with others.

Now if you read slowly, just plan to take more time than might otherwise be necessary. Actually, if you are a slow reader, it is a good idea to read the book more, not less. In that case, you may want to read Habakkuk through a time or two before you really start hunting for information, just to become familiar with the words and style of the book.

You are now ready to prepare a notebook page on which to write your observations as you read Habakkuk. Divide a sheet of notebook paper into four vertical columns, as you see in the drawing that follows. List the following items along the left side of the page, leaving about four lines of space between items: 1) Main Theme of Book; 2) Development (where the main theme appears); 3) Announcements Concerning Content (where the author says ahead of time what is coming next); 4) Terms; 5) Structure; 6) Atmosphere; 7) Literary Form; 8) Literary Devices; 9) Progression.

These items are the things you will be looking for as you read Habakkuk. As you find them, you will write them on this notebook page. Anything you find in chapter 1 will be placed in the chapter 1 column. Anything you find in chapter 2 will be placed in the chapter 2 column. Anything you find in chapter 3 will be placed in the chapter 3 column.

Discovering the Main Theme

Prayerfully read the book of Habakkuk through at a single sitting to discover the main theme. This theme can be found as a thread running through all the chapters. You may need to read the book more than once before this theme becomes apparent to you. It is very important that you read it at a single sitting because it is in the single sitting that the theme begins to emerge in your consciousness. Sometimes if you break up your reading, you won’t get the full impact of the book. So it is a good procedure to read the book through at a single sitting to discover the main theme. Now, lay aside this study book and read Habakkuk through. When you are finished, continue in this study book.

If after reading Habakkuk you are not sure of the main theme, answer these questions: What topic or theme do the following verses all have in common: 1:2, 6, 8, 9, 12; 2:4, 6, 7, 9, 12, 15, 16, 17, 19; 3:1-15? What key verse in 2:1-4 supports the theme?

Development of the Main Theme

Announcements concerning content help to trace the main theme. Such announcements are statements that the author makes ahead of time, telling what is coming next. For example, the Gospel of Matthew begins with such an announcement: “This is the list of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, a descendant of . . . Abraham” (1:1). Here is an announcement concerning content and you are not surprised to find genealogy following it.

In 1 Corinthians 7:25 Paul says: “Now, concerning what you wrote about unmarried people.” That’s an announcement concerning content. It helps you to prepare for what’s coming, and gives you a clue as to the thematic development of the book. Now, read Habakkuk through again at one sitting, looking for announcements concerning content. Then do the following exercise.

These announcements will help you (later in the lesson) to divide the book into meaningful sections for the outline.

Terms, Atmosphere, and Literary Form

Answering the questions in this section may help you to focus on terms, atmosphere, and literary form. Read these questions before you read Habakkuk. Then, read Habakkuk through again at one sitting, looking for terms (that need further study), atmosphere, and literary form. Next, write out (in the proper rows and columns on your notebook page) answers to questions 5, 6, 7, and 8 and compare your answers with those suggested.

Literary Devices and Progression

You are going to be looking for literary devices that we discussed in Lesson 5. You will have some questions to guide your observation. You’re not going to be expecting to see every one of those devices, but you will find some that might help you understand Habakkuk as a whole. For example, if there is a pattern that you begin to notice throughout the book, it’s obvious that to see its relationship to the whole book is important.

Consider the book of Colossians for a moment. In that epistle you have, in a very marked way, the pattern of interchange or alternation. Notice this pattern in these four passages from Colossians 2:20–3:10 which I have labeled A, B, A, B:

  1. “You have died with Christ” (2:20).
  2. “You have been raised to life with Christ” (3:1).
  3. “You must put to death . . . earthly desires” (3:5).
  4. “You . . . have put on the new self” (3:9-10).

These passages show implications of death with Christ and being alive with Christ. You can’t understand the book of Colossians unless you see the device of interchange in it. This device is vital! You have to see that A relates back to a former A, and that B relates back to a former B.

When looking for progression in literature, remember to look for change. You have learned about historical progression through the events of Israel’s journey from Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai. There are examples of ideological progressions from death to life. Habakkuk will have several ideological progressions. You will be looking for broad, overall changes from the beginning to the end. Now that you have read the book a number of times, you are beginning to become a little bit familiar with it!

The questions that follow will help you focus on literary devices and progression. Write the answer to each question in the correct row and column on your notebook. (If you need more space, continue on another page.) Read the questions before or while you read Habakkuk. Look at the answers after you have arrived at your own conclusions.

Outlining Habakkuk

Outlining Habakkuk will involve another reading of the book. Now, your goal is to develop a preliminary outline. The structure of a book can be most easily found by writing a brief title for each paragraph of the book and noticing the relationship among those titles. For the purpose of our outlining, I have divided Habakkuk into 19 paragraphs and have listed the chapter and verse designations for these paragraphs in the following exercise.

1:1          1:12-17 2:9-11                    3:1

1:2-4      2:1                          2:12-14 3:2-15

1:5-7      2:2-4                      2:15-17 3:16

1:8          2:5-6                      2:18-19 3:17-19

1:9-11    2:7-8                      2:20

Notice how the life of the righteous (2:4), the knowledge of God’s glory (2:14), and His presence on earth (2:20) provide a bright thread of faith that is woven into this tapestry of doom: faith that gives blessed hope for every believer.

In order to put your preliminary outline of paragraph titles into integrated outline form, look over these titles to see which ones will serve as main topics, which ones can be combined under a main topic as subtopics, and which ones can be combined as details under a subtopic (write combined topics in sequence—not on same line). Here is our pattern of designations and indentations for your finished outline:

  1. Main Topic
  2. Subtopic
  3. Detail.

Note: There should be at least two designations at each level of indentation. If you can’t find a B. to go with your A., then try to combine A. with the main topic; if you can’t find a 2. to go with your 1., try to combine 1. with the subtopic.

Just in case you have access to other sources of Bible information, such as Bible dictionary or commentary, this would be an appropriate time to consult them and compare your outline with theirs. If you do consult another book, you are not wanting to find a reason to throw your outline away! You do not want to substitute someone else’s outline, you want your own! If you compare your outline with another, you simply want to modify yours in places where it can be strengthened. The same applies to comparing the outline you make with the one in the textbook. Do not think yours has to be exactly like our example in the answer section.

Prepare a notebook page for your integrated outline. You will need about 18 lines. Usually, each of your paragraph titles will fit into one line of the outline; some will be main topics, some will be subtopics, and some will be details. Answering the questions in the next exercise should help you distinguish between main points and sub points. Reread each passage in Habakkuk and the paragraph title you have composed for it as you answer the question concerning it (write your answers in your notebook).

The outline on your notebook page is now completed. If you want to extend this basic outline later, you have a good start. Details can be added as you come across them in your study.


In Lesson 2 you learned that the basic steps in Bible study are: observe, interpret, summarize, evaluate, apply, and correlate. The lessons you have completed have centered on developing the skills you need for the early steps in study. Application is a little different from the other steps in that it involves more than skills you use. It involves attitude, will, relation to the Lord, and motive.

You have also learned that you should come to the Word of God with a reverent, prayerful attitude. It is God’s message to man in general, but it is also God’s message to you personally and to me personally. The Bible is different in that respect from all other books. Your intelligence and skill must be coupled with the help of the Holy Spirit to correctly interpret and apply the Scriptures. You must be born again through faith in Jesus Christ to be able to understand the Bible correctly. God’s message is made clear through the enlightening of your heart by God’s Spirit.

If you are born again, and you have given these lessons thorough treatment, you have probably seen many ways in which the Scriptures apply to your life and circumstances. This application is a large part of the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit to you and for you. Jesus said: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and make you remember all that I have told you” (John 14:26). “When, however, the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all the truth. . . he will take what I say and tell it to you” (John 16:13-14).

Because God speaks to you personally as you read and study Scripture, no course you might take could lay before you all the situations and circumstances in which a given Scripture would apply to your life. God has something fresh to give you every time you open His Word!

There are ways in which you can cooperate with the Holy Spirit to understand the personal application of the Scriptures. It is that personal application of the Word that must be the end result of your study.

Let’s consider some ways in which you can cooperate with God in receiving His personal message to you. There are positive things you can and should do to increase the flow of God’s enlightenment for your personal need, both recognized need and unrecognized need. This should be the end result of Bible study. Ask yourself questions. Ask the Lord questions.

Ask yourself questions that will purify your life, motives, and attitudes.

Am I living up to the light (understanding) I already have? You should be able to say “yes” to this question. If the Holy spirit reveals His will in your life and you refuse to obey His will, you will darken your heart. But, if you will live in obedience to the Word of truth you discover, you will always find more truth quickened to your heart. You will begin to understand deeper truth. The reason God reveals truth is because He is looking for obedience to it.

So, it is in obedience to the understanding of Scripture that more understanding is obtained. This obedience includes a frequent confession of sins to the Lord. Yes, even believers must continually come to Christ for cleansing. First John 1:9 assures us that when we come, Jesus cleanses us. This cleansing removes barriers that would hinder us from understanding God’s truth.

The next questions you need to ask yourself are these: When I come to the Scriptures, do I have a believing attitude? Do I have a seeking attitude? Do I have an accepting attitude? Is my motive pure in seeking truth for my own life, rather than just being able to tell others what to do? These are important questions. Some people who study God’s Word like to pick and choose what they will believe. They foolishly refuse those truths that would make some changes in their way of living. Do not be like them. Accept all of God’s truth, even when it means you must conform your life to it in new ways.

Ask the Lord questions and ask the Bible questions that will help you find the practical applications you need.

the Old Testament God declared Himself to hate divorce (Malachi 2:16), you can be sure that He hates it just as much on the very date that you are reading this as He did when He spoke through Malachi. So, as you study Scripture, ask the Lord to show you the eternal truths that have been revealed in the passage. Ask the Lord these specific questions: “Is this something I should believe? Is this something I should believe and act upon? Is this something I should apply in any way to my living?” One well-known Bible teacher uses the phrase “comparable equivalents.” By this he means, “What is there in my life situation today that corresponds to the biblical situation?” When studying the Bible, continually ask yourself, “HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO ME?”

Work through the following exercises to see some ways in which this search for practical application can be applied to Habakkuk. Answer in your notebook.

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