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~ The Devotional Process of Understanding Scripture ~

Biblical exegesis is the fancy term for extracting the meaning of Scripture. Throughout the last two millennia, methods of exegesis grew in various directions. The ancient tradition generally involved slowly praying the Scriptures, savoring them in humility and silence, as one would enjoy a cup of quality coffee or tea, savoring every taste, pausing between sips, paying attention to the delightful fragrance, feeling the steam caressing the face each time the cup is lifted to the lips.

This approach to enjoying a cup of coffee or tea imparts a different knowledge than analyzing the drink for it ingredients, temperature and pharmacological effects. That is the counterpart of rational or empirical exegesis, which has gained popularity in the denominations that are more reasonable than mystical, more practical than ritualistic or ascetic, more scientific than artistic.

Grasping the meaning of poetry with the intellect is like squeezing a handful of fine sand. A calm, still, open hand can hold much more sand than a closed, grasping fist. There is a good reason why the biblical books known as "wisdom literature" are written in poetic language. To impart wisdom, write poetically (and that does not mean make your sentences rhyme!) The cadence of a gurgling stream of water flowing over rocks is profound poetry, not to be dissected by the mind. In the Greek language of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he writes that Christians are the "poiema" (poem) of God. So few of us in the West merit that honorable title. To impart knowledge, write analytically and factually, as in a thesis. (However, I would want to read a classic novel before reviewing an analytical thesis of it.) 

Write a song to enter the heart of a listener, or make up an intriguing story, as Jesus liked to do. To someone whose intellect is more open and alert than his or her heart and soul, read an encyclopedia or dictionary definition. He or she won't criticize your poetic renditions and believe to have obtained the truth. The Truth however, as Jesus called Himself, cannot be transmitted that way.

So with what kind of exegesis shall we ponder the Scriptures? They are popularly called "The Word of God." When someone tells us, "Spend time in the word," we know what is meant: "Study your Bible."

Yet the Scriptures declare: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). In the book of Hebrews we read, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:1-3a, NIV).

There is only one Word. All the thousands of words in Scripture reflect that One Word. As a kid, I enjoyed focusing sunlight into a small point with a magnifying glass and burning holes into paper or wood. This concentrated light would often start a flame. Interestingly, fire is a metaphor for the power of Holy Spirit. One of the poorest definitions of exegesis I heard was, "Keeping the word in your heart," which really means, "Memorize Scripture in your mind."

To explain a bit what I mean, I quote from Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand: "In solitary confinement, we could not pray as before. We were unimaginably hungry; we had been drugged until we acted like idiots. We were as weak as skeletons. The Lord's Prayer was much too long for us -- we could not concentrate enough to say it. My only prayer repeated again and again was, 'Jesus, I love You.'" I once heard Wurmbrand speak. He explained how in his torture and confinement, he forgot all Scripture quotes and memorized prayers from the Psalms. Such memorization, now lost, did not sustain him. But all the words he ever studied and memorized from Scripture were concentrated like a magnifying glass concentrating light into his soul into one point: The words condensed into one Word, and he loved that Word as that Word loved and sustained him. At that time, that is all he needed. He spent lots of time "in the Word" and now is residing forever in the Word's Presence.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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