Greetings! I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. But there’s been a good reason or two…
First of all, we have a new fur baby! He’s 5 weeks old, super-soft, and totally adorable! However, my every waking and sleeping moment has been dominated by his need to eat, potty, play, and sleep. Ironically, it didn’t take me long to sober up from our family puppy craze as I took him outside to potty at 12, 2, and 4 am our first night with him. I had forgotten how a new puppy is having like a new baby! [sigh]
Let’s just say there haven’t been too many spare moments to sit and write lately. And boy, have I missed it!! In addition to managing a new puppy, I’ve also been working on sprucing up my Bible study skills. In recent months, I’ve become more acquainted with inductive Bible study, and it’s been a real eye-opener, to say the least. So while the puppy takes his nap, let’s take a moment to reconnect!
Years ago, I taught third-graders how to use context clues to find meaning for unknown words. But recently, I’ve found myself learning a thing or two about finding context in my Bible Study. Context is central to our understanding of a text. It provides the basis, the background, and often overlooked clues that help us find the true meaning of a word or passage.
When used in Bible study, context has us look closely at things like the original audience and intent of the author in their writing. We also dig into understanding the period’s historical backdrop and cultural norms. We also consider the grammar used and the type of text we are reading. (For instance, we pay attention to who is speaking and to whom, and we consider whether the text is narrative, law, poetry or wisdom literature, etc.)
As I’ve been at work practicing these things, I’ve unfortunately realized that some of my Bible study habits have needed adjustment. I have learned the importance of first reading the text objectively to see what the author initially intended to say. With this context, I can then re-read a passage more subjectively to discover what it teaches me about God. I have realized that blazing through the text without gaining the context first risks misinterpretation of the Scripture! Solid application of the text depends on accurate interpretation!
Of course, it isn’t always easy to learn new skills. Even a new puppy can be expected to have a few accidents before they know to go outside. There have been days when I’ve been reluctant to keep at these new practices. Is it possible to teach an old dog new tricks? The old habits are familiar and more comfortable. But I try to remind myself that the payoff will come as I dig into the Scripture and practice reading it more objectively. Eventually, these new study practices will become habitual in my Bible Study.
In recent weeks, these study skills proved very useful as I meandered through the books of Jeremiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah. (Each has a unique perspective on Israel’s Babylonian exile and return to the homeland.)
Since the books span several decades, I found it helpful to pull up maps, timelines, and some chapter introductions to familiarize myself with the context for each book. And it was through this process I became impressed with a seemingly small contextual detail I learned in the book of Nehemiah.
In chapter 1, Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the king, heard that ‘those who survived the exile … [were] in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem [was] broken down, and its gates [had] been burned with fire.”  Upon hearing these things, Nehemiah became greatly distressed. He even wept, fasted, and prayed for several days. 
Later in chapter 2, we read that he was so distraught about things that he risked his life with his downcast facial expression while in the king’s presence. (It was considered insulting to the king to exhibit any form of displeasure in his presence.)
After the king inquired about him, Nehemiah explained that he was grieved over the current depravity of his people and Jerusalem. Because the king held Nehemiah in high esteem, he allowed him to return to Jerusalem with provisions to help rebuild the city walls. 
But what really grabbed my attention was learning that Nehemiah was born in Babylon (during Israel’s exile).  This small contextual detail really changed how I read the book. When I re-read chapter 2 and considered how distraught Nehemiah was, I realized that he had never seen Jerusalem or the temple for himself. This new detail created a richer context for understanding his emotional response to Jerusalem’s ruin.
And it occurred to me that I’d held a wrong assumption about Nehemiah all these years. I assumed he must have been like Daniel, taken into captivity as a young man without understanding his personal context. But now I realized that he had never known his people’s homeland for himself, which was fascinating to me. It completely altered how I read the book of Nehemiah.
I pictured him grief-stricken after hearing the news of the broken-down walls. I imagined him in knots before the king and nervously explaining his concerns. I could see him arriving in Jerusalem and using the cover of night to inspect the walls for himself.
And this made me wonder, how could a man care so deeply for a people and a city without having his own personal understanding or context for them?
Obviously, Nehemiah’s heart had grown for the remnant and Jerusalem. He most likely collected details from others throughout his life, particularly from his brother’s personal account. I considered if no one had shared with Nehemiah about what Jerusalem had once been like, why his people were forced into exile or even the current depravity of the remnant in Jerusalem, he would never have developed an understanding or a deep concern for these things like he did.
His story now seemed more relatable to parts of mine. For instance, I’ve never known the atrocities of WWII, but I’ve heard my grandparents talk about them on several occasions. Their personal accounts of rations, drafts, and battles in the South Pacific have helped shape my understanding of the war.
Likewise, Nehemiah must have heard about Jerusalem from others. Growing up in Babylon, I realized how his understanding of sin and its consequences must have been shaped by this. After all, his people had been forced to live in exile for their sin against God. Understanding these details about his background created a new depth to his story when eventually, he became compelled to share his burden one day with the king.
When I slowed down and considered the greater context of Nehemiah’s life, I found that his story reminds us that God is holy and cannot tolerate sin. It reminds us that we should be grieved about our sin and its consequences. But specifically, his story really communicated to me the importance of sharing what we know about God and his work with others. Hearts grow and can even result in fervent action when we share about God and His son Jesus.
But where do we get the context we need to know about Jesus? Fortunately, there are numerous first-hand accounts of Jesus found in the Bible. Several eyewitnesses to Jesus have recorded their encounters with Him in the New Testament. We can also learn a lot from the Old Testament, which does well to set the stage for why Jesus was sent to the earth.
But the Bible is not the only place to gain an understanding of God or His son Jesus. Just like Nehemiah, we can know them for ourselves through the work of the Holy Spirit. When we believe that Jesus came as God’s Son, lived a sinless life, and then took our place on the cross for our sins, we receive His Holy Spirit. We learn how to abide by Him and trust His guidance in our lives. And as we see His work in our lives, it encourages us to share with others. Like Nehemiah, the more we know about God and His Son, the more our heart grows, and we become eager to respond and share what we know.
I’ve come to appreciate the discipline of digging into the details. Practicing the study skill of finding context has been a challenge but not without reward. I see now how I can miss out on treasures of understanding if I rush through my reading. This new study approach enables me to read and interpret the text more accurately.
When we take the time to study God’s Word, we ultimately get to know God better. We can expand in our love and enthusiasm when we learn about Him, just like Nehemiah. Whether you are just beginning to engage in the Word, or an “old dog” who’s a little too comfortable with your current study habits, it’s never too late to learn a new way to study God’s Word.
 Wilken, Jen. Women of the Word. Crossway, 2014.
 Nehemiah 1:3b
 Nehemiah 1:4
 Nehemiah 2:2-9