When studying a Bible passage – in preaching, for example – it’s time to dig into the specifics of the verses you have. Find the purpose of that text, the ‘why’, the angularity of that part of God’s word.
Don’t be easily distracted. Listen well, with all the time it takes.
When trying to grasp the big picture of all God has spoken – ‘doing theology’, we might say – that’s a good time to go broad. Get all the information that’s relevant, chase the links and implications.
Consider these two examples from the Psalms.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5)
David, in confession, knows the depth of his sin. There was no time in my life, he concedes, that was ever pure. Sin is his constant. What a powerful observation of humanity’s problem before the Holy One! We need this in our preaching, Bible studies, individual reading, …
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you. (Psalm 71:6)
This is a less famous Psalm, so the contrast might not be well-known. But look how this Psalm has trust in the Lord from before the year dot. In utero praise! There was no time, says Psalm 71, when the Lord was not the only true refuge. God is what he has always been – our only hope. How we need this message in our preaching, Bible studies, individual reading …
If I was leading a study on either of these Psalms, I would not cross-reference the other one. It would kill the power of Psalm 51 to say, ‘David knew his sin, but of course we know also that Psalm 71 says …’ Don’t do it! In preaching, stay narrow, focus on the passage, and let its razor-sharp truth do the necessary surgery.
On the other hand, you might be thinking through what God teaches us about children and infants. Are they rebels? Or faithful? Or bank slates, waiting for maturity before choosing a ‘real’ status? I am not going to answer those questions! Yet both of our two verses need to be heard (and many others, too). For theology, go broad.
Now, an exercise. See if my idea works. Staying in the Psalms, take Psalm 73 and Psalm 74. Specifically, how do these passages speak to us of the temple. It seems such a relief, joy, and instruction in Psalm 73:17. But in Psalm 74:3-5 the temple is as hopeless as a clear-felled forest.
How is the sanctuary of God a powerful image in each Psalm? (That’s the preaching.)
How do these contrasting images build up a fuller picture of the Jerusalem sanctuary? (Our theology.)
Let me know what you think, and if you get anything from the comparison of the two Psalms!