Embracing Exegesis

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of exegesis to expository preaching. Before there can be any effective exposition, there must first be effective exposition. If there is no exegesis, there is no exposition. What a firm foundation is to a large building, exegesis is to exposition. In this sense, exegesis upholds the entire superstructure of the sermon. Rightly dividing the biblical text is what undergirds rightly preaching it. Exegesis is that important to the pulpit.

When we say exegesis, what do we mean? The word is a transliteration of the Greek word exegesis, which means an explanation or interpretation. Exegesis as a noun does not appear in the New Testament. However, the verbal form (exegeomai) is found six times in the New Testament. It is a compound word, combining hegeomai, which means "to lead," with the prefix ek, meaning "out of." Literally, it means "to lead out of." The idea is to lead the meaning out of what has been said.

A brief survey reveals this. Exegeomai is found in John 1:18, which states that the Lord Jesus has "explained" who God is and interpreted what He does and says. On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion began to "relate" what Christ had taught  them (Luke 24:35). That is, they explained to the disciples exactly what occurred when He appeared to them. In similar fashion, Cornelius "explained" to Peter what he had seen in a vision (Acts 10:18). Likewise, Paul and Barnabas were "relating" to the Jerusalem council what God had done on their first missionary journey (Acts 15:12). Again, he "related" how God had converted Gentiles in Galatia (Acts 15:14). Moreover, Paul began to "relate" what God had done through his ministry (Acts 21:19). In each passage, the main idea of exegeomai is to relate or explain what was said or done.

This is precisely what the exegesis of a passage of Scripture entails. The word simply means to correctly interpret a biblical text. It involves the careful explanation of a passage of Scripture. This is the opposite of eisegesis, which is reading into a text a meaning that is not there. Exegesis, on the other hand, involves leading out of a biblical text the proper meaning that is there. Closely related to exegesis is hermeneutics, which concerns the laws that  underwrite the science of interpretation. Hermeneutics deals with the principles of interpretation that govern how the expositor carries out his work of exegesis.

Diving for Pearls
An illustration would be helpful. Exegesis may be compared to the work of a pearl diver who plunges deep below the surface of the ocean. To find the valuable pearls, he must submerge and swim to the bottom of the ocean. He must carefully gather up the precious jewels that lie on the ocean floor. He will never find these ivory-white gems in the shallows along the shoreline. Neither will he discover them floating on the surface of the water. To secure these pearls, he must plunge deep to the bottom of the ocean.

Once these precious gems are in hand, the diver must bring the pearls to the surface. No one can benefit from them as long as they remain on the ocean floor. He must swim to the surface with them and take them to market. He must give them to a jeweler, who can string the pearls onto a strand, making a beautiful necklace. This collection enhances their luster and makes them attractive and desirable to their observers.

Going Deep Into the Text
The same is true for every expositor. He must descend to the depths of his passage of Scripture. He must gather up the valuable pearls of truth that are found beneath the surface of the text. These valuable gems do not lie on the surface of his passage. The expositor must go down deep into his verses. This requires his discipline and dedication to this demanding work. Further, it necessitates that he has received the proper training in how to find these pearls in Scripture.

This is the role of exegesis. The preacher must dive into his text. He must plunge deep into his passage if he is to gather up the pearls. The exegete must not only go down deep into the text, but stay down for an extended period. He must get to the bottom of his passage, and this requires time in the text. He must plunge below the surface of his verses. He must submerge himself in the text to discover these lustrous jewels. The success of his pulpit ministry is dependent upon the exegetical pearls he finds. When he steps into the pulpit, he must bring out and show the priceless necklace he has collected from his passage. He must string together the findings of his exegesis and present them in the pulpit. This requires a high degree of commitment and competence on his part.

Sunbathers and Snorkelers
Tragically, though, too many preachers are like sunbathers who never leave the comforts of the beach. They never dive into the deep for these pearls. They would much prefer to lounge on the sand and chat with other sunbathers. They never immerse themselves in the biblical text. They never even get wet by swimming in their passage. Every Sunday, they are dry in the pulpit.

Other preachers are like snorkelers, who merely paddle in the shallows. They are always near the shoreline and never venture out into the deep. Consequently, they lack depth in their preaching. The reason is because they lack depth in their study of the biblical text.

Sunbathers and snorkelers do not make good expositors. Their findings in the passage are superficial. They never get to the bottom of their verses. They never plunge into the depths of the Word. They never leave the beach or knee-high water. Theychoose instead to remain on land or float on the surface. Their study languishes in the tiny ripples near the shore. Consequently, their preaching remains shallow and ankle-deep.

Submerged in Scripture
By stark contrast, authentic expository preaching requires depth in exegetical study. The one who would preach the Bible effectively must be proficient in the skills required to properly interpret it. To the extent that he can immerse himself in the text, his preaching will be marked by precision and profundity, and even power. The deeper he can plunge into the Word, the higher will be his knowledge of God and His truth.

Since this is the case, what areas of study are necessary for effective exegesis? The  discipline of exegesis requires that the expositor give careful attention to what his passage means by examining it on multiple levels. He must dive into his text contextually, linguistically, verbally, grammatically, syntactically, historically, culturally, geographically, and theologically. It will be important that we briefly address each of these areas in order to understand the exegetical process.

Consider the Context
First, the expositor must study the context in which his passage is found. He should start by noting the larger context and proceed to its immediate context. He must be aware of where his text is located in the overall flow of the Bible. In the progressive revelation of Scripture, where does this text find itself? On the grand scale, do these verses look forward to the first coming of Christ? Or do they look back at His first advent? Does the biblical author write before, during, or after the ceremonial law? Many other such time references must be considered.

Further, the expositor must ascertain: Where do these verses find themselves within each Testament? Is this passage found in the Law section of the Old Testament? If so, what part of the Mosaic Law was fulfilled in the death of Christ? What part of it is still in effect today? Are these verses found in the Hebrew poetry section? Are they in the prophecy section? Where in the New Testament is this passage found? Is it in one of the four Gospels? Is it located in Acts? Is it in one of Paul's epistles? Is it in one of the general epistles? Is it found in the book of Revelation? This placement will effect one's handling of the text.

Moreover, where in this book of the Bible is this passage found? Does it teach foundational truth in the opening prologue of the book? Does it assert didactic or polemic truth in its main body? Is it a climactic summation in the book's conclusion? Furthermore, each book in the Bible has a central theme. How does this text support the larger theme of this book? What has been the building argument of this book? What focus immediately precedes these verses? Has the dominant idea of these verses been previously addressed in this book? What is the literary unit in which these verses are found? How does this text contribute to the main idea of this paragraph? The answers to these questions will shed important light upon understanding and interpreting his text.

Identify the Literature
Second, the exegete must identify the type of literature with which his text is written. The style of writing is known as the literary genre. Identifying the genre has a significant effect upon how the text will be approached and interpreted. The entire Bible is not written in one and the same generic literary form. Many different styles of communication are used throughout the Scripture. Each literary classification has its own unique way of recording the truth. In the Bible, the basic forms of literature are narrative law, song, wisdom, discourse, parable, epistle, and prophecy. Any proper exegetical study requires understanding the nuances of these literary types. Knowing the common traits of each of these categories is essential in rightly interpreting each writing style.

By way of overview, narrative is the recording of an event that occurred within real time and space, that involves actual people, places, things, or action. Law includes legal regulations with their preambles, codes, and punishments. Song is written as poetry in stanzas with parallelism and figures of speech. Wisdom contains pithy sayings of general observations of life and reflections upon it. Discourse contains the sermons delivered by a preacher. Parable is a hypothetical story told to convey one basic truth. Epistle is a letter written to a church, group, or individual. Prophetic communicates near and far catastrophic events with rich symbolism. With each literary genre, interpretative features will be unique to it.

Examine the Original
Third, the exegete must also undertake a careful linguistic analysis of his passage. This necessitates studying the biblical text in its original language. The Old Testament was mostly written in Hebrew, with a few chapters in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, the common language spoken in the ancient Roman Empire. If the expositor is to rightly interpret his passage, he must study it in these original languages. This requires that the preacher know the original languages. If he does not, he must, at least, be able to access this information through the various study tools available to him. Either way, operating in the original language is a necessary discipline in exegesis.

This begins with the expositor translating his text from the Greek or Hebrew. He may want to compare his translation work with other reputable English translations. He should read his passage in the original language. If he does not have this capacity, he nevertheless must use the available tools that will enable him to interact with the passage in the original language. One way or another, he must have an awareness of his text with his eye on the original language in which it was written.

To determine the precise meaning of key words, the expositor must perform word studies in the original language. This includes identifying the root word, researching the word's etymology, and supplementing one's understanding with any extra-biblical uses of the term. This also involves knowing what prefix may be added to the root, making it a compound word. Such word studies require discovering the primary and secondary meanings of the word. This necessitates tracing the use of this word by the same author in other passages and how other authors have used this word in Scripture.

The efficiency with which the expositor is able to correctly interpret his passage will be dependent in large measure upon his work in the original language. Operating at this level is not incidental, but fundamental to sound exegesis. Further exegetical study in the original languages requires parsing the verb, noting the tenses, moods, voices, and persons. He must give attention to the main verbs and note how the participles modify them and infinitives function. Many other aspects of working in the original language are involved here.

Grasp the Grammar
Fourth, the next essential part of the exegetical process is investigating the grammar of the passage. This involves noting the structure of sentences, specifically the relationships that words have to each other. This involves studying the role that each word plays in a sentence. The expositor must determine what is the subject, verb, and object of the sentence. He must see identify the adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. He must discern what each word modifies. He must also note the conjunctions-what they connect and what transitions they form.

In this study of grammar, the exegete must understand the role of nouns and pronouns. What is the gender, case, and number of the word in question? How is it typically, and in this instance, used in sentences? Moreover, he must be aware of prepositional, participial, and infinitival phrases. These phrases are a small group of related words forming a unit without a verb. Further, the expositor must be aware of the clauses, which is a unit of words with a subject and verb that forms part of a sentence.

All of these observations about the words in the passage work together to help the exegete understand the full import of their syntax, that is, with the arrangement of words and phrases into larger units known as sentences. He can then distinguish between simple, compound, broken, and inverted sentences. The more the expositor can see how each word works and relates to others in the sentence, the more correctly he can interpret it.

Discern the Figures
Fifth, the exegete must interpret any figures of speech found in his passage. These manners of expression communicate the truth of the text with vivid and memorable expressions. Figures of speech are picturesque forms of expression that enable the author to arrest the reader's attention. These poetic terms and phrases are designed to paint pictures on the canvas of people's minds. Rather than simply stating the truth, a figure of speech shows it.

A sampling of the more common figures of speech are as follows: A simile is a direct comparison using "like" or "as." A metaphor compares two realities without "like" or "as." Hypocatastasis compares two things by naming only one of them while implying the other. An allegory is a series of extended metaphors built around a central theme. Metonymy conveys meaning by association. Synecdoche involves a part that stands for the whole. Hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration. Personification assigns human-like qualities to an inanimate object. Apostrophe addresses a lifeless object as though it is a living person. Anthropomorphism represents God as having a human body. Zoomorphism attributes animal qualities to God. Many more figures of speech are found in the Scripture, but these are just a few examples of the many patterns of speech that an exegete must be attuned to.

Research the History
Sixth, an exegete must study his passage in light of its historical setting. If it is to be rightly interpreted, the background of a passage must be well researched and various resources must be consulted. A text must never be divorced from the time-space setting in which it was originally written. Most passages involve actual people and real events that occurred in specific places. Understanding the historical background opens up the meaning of the passage in significant ways.  

The biblical interpreter must be able to place his selected text within the chronological flow of the larger historical framework. He must ask: Where does this passage fit in the linear progression of redemptive history? What world events affect the significance of this text? What political, military, agricultural, or economic information enhances the understanding of this passage? The preacher must grasp the historical setting of a biblical passage. To do so, he must consult Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries.

Check the Culture
Seventh, the exegete must also take into consideration the cultural background of his passage. Rightly understanding its meaning requires that he know something of the customs in the ancient Middle East. Without the knowledge of the manners and customs of the ancient Jews and the surrounding empires and nations, it will be hard, if not impossible, for him to grasp what many texts actually mean. Consequently, it is incumbent upon the expositor to view Scripture in light of how the different aspects of daily life were conducted long ago.

This requires an understanding of life on many different levels in Israel, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Europe. This means researching the political environment of the day. This includes a knowledge of kings, pharaohs, caesars, tetrarchs, and centurions, such as understanding  their jurisdiction and how they operated. There must be the knowledge of ancient social customs such as banquets, parties, meals, betrothals, weddings, and funerals. There must be insight into ancient economic policies such as banking practices involving loans and interest rates. There must also be an understanding of ancient military procedures, including battles, chariots, shields, swords, helmets, and the like.

In addition, the exegete must have a working knowledge of the climate conditions and weather in the Middle East. He must have background information concerning the agricultural procedures of ancient farming such as sowing seed, tiling soil, pruning branches, gathering grain, and enduring famines. He must know about the various native flowers of Israel such as myrrh, aloes, and cassia. He must also be acquainted with the minerals indigenous to Israel- brimstone, miry clay, mire, flint, gold, iron, and silver.

Bridging the cultural gap also requires a basic knowledge of zoological life in ancient Israel and the surrounding region. This includes accessing information regarding bees, dogs, badgers, doves, sea monsters, eagles, flies, foxes, sheep, horses, and more. He must also research shepherding practices in ancient Israel, attending to the importance of a flock, fold, gatekeeper, rod, staff, green pastures, still waters, wolves, and the like. In addition, he must know about hunters in the ancient world, who used bow and arrow, sling, snare, net, pit, and more.

Survey the Geography
Eighth, the expositor must study the geography and terrain of Israel and the surrounding regions. The historical accounts of the Bible occurred on three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe. This diverse terrain with land, sea, and rivers requires careful research. It is necessary to consider a broad range of geographical and  topographical features, including mountains, valleys, plateaus, pastures, wildernesses, oceans, seas, rivers, and streams. The expositor must research the full breadth of the geography in which his passage occurred.

This requires a working knowledge of the land and topography in Israel, Egypt, Kadesh Wilderness, Babylon, Assyria, Arabia, Asia Minor, Europe, and many more places. This understanding is essential in grasping a necessary insight into many biblical passages. Also, the exegete must have an understanding of bodies of water such as the Red Sea, Jordan River, Dead Sea, Sea of Galilee, and others. He must also know something of mountains, valleys, deserts, and highlands. Consequently, the faithful expositor must note the geographical references found in the text if he is to properly grasp the meaning of the text.

Document the Theology
Ninth, the expositor must see the biblical doctrine taught in his passage. The theological truth found within the text must be connected to the larger framework of biblical and systematic theology. Important doctrinal questions must always be asked: What does this passage teach about God? What does it reveal about Jesus Christ? What does it make known about the Holy Spirit? What does the doctrine in this passage contribute to our understanding of angels, Satan, and demons? What instruction do we gain from these verses concerning the truth about man, sin, and salvation? What doctrine is explained regarding the church, Israel, and last things?

The expositor must be a student of biblical theology, which is the doctrine taught in one particular portion of Scripture. It may be the theology of the Old or New Testaments, the theology in one section of one Testament, the theology of one biblical author, or the theology of one book in the Bible. When these areas of biblical theology are combined together into one comprehensive theology, the result is systematic theology. This is the study of each major area of doctrine through the entirety of Scripture. Simply put, systematic theology is the discipline that attempts to arrange the doctrinal content of Scripture in an orderly and coherent fashion.

To rightly interpret his passage, the exegete must have a working knowledge of theology. He must see his passage in light of the overall theology of the entire Bible. Knowing biblical and systematic theology will be a governing factor in interpreting what this particular text is teaching. Every passage must be consistent with what the rest of the Bible teaches. The Bible always speaks with one voice and never contradicts itself.

Exegesis in Expository Preaching
Each of these nine aspects of exegesis is essential in rightly interpreting Scripture. If the expositor is to plunge to the depths of his passage and find the pearls that lay in his text, he must pursue each of these areas of exegesis. Without practicing each of these aspects, the preacher will easily devolve into allegorizing, moralizing, or spiritualizing his text. He will even be vulnerable to psychologizing or editorializing the passage to fit his whims. Proper exegesis is absolutely necessary for expository preaching. These skills are not mastered completely at one setting, but are built up and learned over a lifetime of ministry.  The expositor must labor in prayer through his study of the text as he depends fully upon the Holy Spirit to be his divine guide through the exegesis. Remember brothers, our expositions will rise no higher than the depth of our exegesis.