You might not be familiar with the name Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but you are with his most popular literary creation—Sherlock Holmes. Soon after he first appeared on the printed page in 1887, Doyle’s fictional detective garnered fame for his investigative techniques. Most of all, he became known for his uncanny skill in observation. In one scene, Holmes’ sidekick—Dr. John Watson—watched in awe as he saw this skill in action:

As he spoke, he whipped a tape-measure and a large, round magnifying-glass from his pocket. With these two implements he trotted noiselessly about the room, sometimes stopping, occasionally kneeling, and once lying flat upon his face. So engrossed was he with his occupation that he appeared to have forgotten our presence, for he chattered away to himself under his breath the whole time, keeping up a running fire of exclamations, groans, whistles, and little cries suggestive of encouragement and of hope. As I watched him I was irresistibly reminded of a pure-blooded, well-trained fox-hound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent. For twenty minutes or more he continued his researches, measuring with the most exact care the distance between marks which were entirely invisible to me, and occasionally applying his tape to the walls in an equally incomprehensible manner. In one place he gathered up very carefully a little pile of grey dust from the floor, and packed it away in an envelope. Finally he examined with his glass the word upon the wall, going over every letter of it with the with the most minute exactness. This done, he appeared to be satisfied, for he replaced his tape and his glass in his pocket. “They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he remarked with a smile. “It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”[1]

Elsewhere, Holmes provides a poignant explanation for his dedication to the “pains” of observation: “I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”[2]

We demand the same approach in many of life’s circumstances today. Whether it is the investigation of a serious crime, a mysterious illness, or a crashed passenger jet, we expect detectives, doctors, and engineers to embrace the pains of observation. We cry foul when they force the facts to suit their theories.

We must hold ourselves to no less of a standard when we approach the Word of God. The postmodern infatuation with subjectivity and relative truth cannot exist in the world of justice, medicine, and engineering—and it must not be allowed to exist in the realm of Bible study. An approach is needed that will keep at bay our propensity to make texts fit personal preferences, and which submits us wholly to the authority of God mediated through His Word. It is an approach that will require “pains” (see 2 Tim. 2:15).

In the previous study, we identified the starting point: context. No text appears in a vacuum. Therefore, before a reader begins to examine a text in detail, he must familiarize himself with the historical and literary fabric into which that text was woven. Once a satisfactory understanding of that context has been established, the reader is ready to begin examining the details of the text. He is now ready for stage two: observation.

Observation can be defined as “the art of awareness.” Robert Traina likened it to “the absorbing process of the sponge when it is exposed to a liquid.”[3] When practicing observation, the student has two foundational objectives: (1) to become thoroughly conscious of the text’s details; and (2) to become thoroughly convinced of their need for explanation. How is this accomplished?

1. Read the text repeatedly.

The goal of this step is to do more than merely see words on a page. Like Sherlock Holmes, the reader must take inventory of everything, and since God does not waste jots and tittles, the reader must take pains to become aware of even the smallest details. To do this, the student must read, read, read, and read again. As he does, he must guard against the illusion of mastery—the error of thinking that familiarity with a text equals mastery of its content.[4]

This reading of the text must be done in an appropriate translation if the student is not fluent in the original language of the text. The observations made from a translated text will only be as good as that translation is faithful to the language of the original. Because of their desire to appeal to contemporary readers and cultures, paraphrases and dynamic equivalent translations will be less helpful during the stage of observation. On the other hand, literal or formal equivalent translations—like the New American Standard Bible—will be much more reliable because of their effort to reproduce as faithfully as possible both the form and the content of the author’s language.

2. Compare the best translations.

A helpful way to recognize the details of a text is to compare it as it is stated in your translation with how it is rendered by other standard translations. Wherever this comparison reveals a notable difference, you can assume that a significant interpretive issue stands behind it. These differences need to be recognized and recorded for further study in the next stage of the process: interpretation.

For example, if you were observing Romans 8:26, you would place the NASB translation alongside two or three other standard translations:

  • NASB: In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

  • ESV: Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

  • KJV: Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

  • NIV: In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

 A comparison of these translations shows several interesting differences: (1) the KJV reads “infirmities” (plural), whereas the other translations read “weakness” (singular); (2) the NASB reads “how” to pray (suggesting manner), whereas the other translations read “what” to pray (suggesting content); and (3) the KJV refers to “groanings which cannot be uttered,” whereas the other translations refer to groanings which cannot be put into words. Now that they are observed, these differences can be added to a list of details that become the student’s focus during the interpretation stage.

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3. Create a structural diagram.

The purpose of a structural diagram is to portray the text’s grammatical structure in a graphic manner. Diagramming requires the student to read the text at an even greater level of detail, identifying the main subject and verb in each sentence, distinguishing main clauses from subordinate ones, and recognizing how various phrases in each sentence qualify particular words. Diagramming also helps the student trace the writer’s flow of thought from the beginning to the end of the passage he is studying. Underscoring the importance of such a step, Lee Kantenwein writes,

The individual who is unable to express in some graphic way the structure of the sentence is frequently not able to grasp the complete thought housed in a group of words. On the other hand, students who are trained to chart the structure of visual thought patterns in the mechanics of sentence organization developing into wider thought patterns will have learned much regarding what the writer is endeavoring to communicate.[5]

There are two common approaches to diagramming: (1) block diagramming; and (2) sentence diagramming. Of the two, block diagramming is simpler and best suited for work in a translation or for work in lengthy passages. Sentence diagramming is more detailed and better suited for shorter texts and work in the original biblical languages. Since space does not permit a detailed explanation of these diagrams here, the reader is encouraged to consult a range of diagramming resources available both online and in printed form.[6] Indeed, diagramming can be one of the most difficult pains of the observation stage. But it is usually only in these pains that the student makes his most valuable observations.

4. Ask the right questions.

It is not the goal at this point to form conclusions. That will come in the next stage. Rather, based on repeated reading, comparison of translations, and structural diagramming, the student must now make one more attempt to mine the data from the text. He must approach the text with the mind of a meticulous investigator, and this means refraining from interpretation and taking the time to ask the right questions instead.

The role that good questions play in the process of observation cannot be overestimated. Think about young children. As soon as a child develops the ability to ask questions, the intensity of learning increases exponentially. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? As exasperating to parents as these questions may be, such inquiries demonstrate that the child’s mind is healthy and growing.

If the student of Scripture desires to learn, he must put on the inquisitive mind of a child. Write the text out on a piece of paper, leaving ample space for underlining, circling, drawing arrows, and recording notes. Then ask questions, and on the basis of what is actually stated, see what the text yields in return. As Sherlock Holmes states, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,”[7] so nothing can be taken for granted or left as a general impression.

However, as you ask questions, keep in mind a word of caution. There are all sorts of questions that are not the right questions to ask at this point in the process. These are questions which put the reader at the center of the investigation—questions like How does this text make me feel? or How does this sound in my culture? The postmodern world around us is constantly looking for ways to thrust self into the starring role, to use the process of observation as the process of self-promotion. This obsession has influenced many Christians today, and it results in an approach that replaces the voice of God with the voice of self—all under the banner of “Bible study.” Ultimately, for questions to be helpful, aim them at the original author and his purpose for writing. Application—the impact of the text’s information on my personal life—will come later, once the author’s intent has been satisfactorily understood.

5. Summarize the results.

After an appropriate amount of time has been dedicated to the observation process, it is important to step back and sum up what has been observed. Place this material in one of four categories:

A. Key terms

These are the words you identified that are hard to understand, and notably different in the translations, or appear to carry extraordinary influence in the meaning of text.

B. Key grammatical features

Grammar refers to word-relationships, so the observations in this category relate to what you observed in the structure of your text—the relationships of phrases and clauses to one another, punctuation issues, etc.

C. Key facts

This category relates to the data you mined from the text—issues not subject to varying points of view but clearly demonstrable from the text when taken at face value.

D. Key questions.

These are all the questions that arose as you studied the text—questions which require further research and interpretation.

Ultimately, it is upon these categories that the student will focus his attention in the next stage. These will help guide him in the process of interpretation.

In sum, keep in mind this rule for Bible study: The more time you spend in observation, the more effective and efficient you will be in interpretation. The pains you sow at this stage of the process will yield a harvest of rewards. Conversely, the degree to which you take shortcuts and fail to acquaint yourself with the data of the text is the degree to which the rest of your study will suffer.

[This blog entry is the second of a four-part series summarizing a sound approach to Bible study.
If you missed stage 1, you can find it here. To learn more, continue on to Stage 3: Drawing out Meaning.]

Editor's Note: For more on everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our guide: Handling Scripture.

[1] A. Conan Doyle, Stories of Sherlock Holmes, vol. 1,  A Study in Scarlet; The Sign of the Four (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1904), 35-36.

[2] Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1906), 6.

[3] Robert A. Traina, Methodical Bible Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 48.

[4] The reader is encouraged to locate the short story entitled “The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz.” The account describes Samuel H. Scudder’s first encounter with the renowned ichthyologist, Dr. Louis Agassiz, founder of Harvard University’s Lawrence School of Science. It has become a classic illustration of the value of careful observation.

[5] Lee L. Kantenwein, Diagrammatical Analysis, rev. ed. (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1991), 9.

[6] For starters, see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Illustrations of Syntactical and Homiletical Analysis,” chapter 8 in Toward an Exegetical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998); Thomas R. Schreiner, “Diagramming and Conducting a Grammatical Analysis,” chapter 5 in Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011); and George J. Zemek, “Grammatical Analysis and Expository Preaching,” chapter 9 in Preaching: How to Preach Biblically, ed. John F. MacArthur, Jr. and The Master’s Seminary Faculty (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005). A standard for English sentence diagramming is Graded Lessons in English: An Elementary English Grammar by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg, written at the end of the 19th century. It is available for download from numerous sites on the internet, including Google eBooks.

[7] Doyle, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 108.