The Problem with Reading the Bible Verse-by-Verse
It’s harder than you might think. Over the years we have trained ourselves to read the Bible in an unnatural way, so we’re going to have to break some bad habits. We are trained to read the Bible verse-by-verse, but in keeping with the “ordinary reading principle” we need to change our habits. We should ordinarily be reading the Bible paragraph-by-paragraph or, even better, book-by-book.
Read the book (not around the book)
This may sound obvious, but the first and most important rule for interpreting and appropriating any biblical book is to actually read the book. Our ability to read well is often disrupted by a multitude of distractions, and those distractions halt reading. So read the book as it was meant to be read—that is, in a steady stream without pauses or breaks. You need to immerse yourself in the text.
That sounds easy enough, but it’s actually harder than you might think. The “distractions” that I’m referring to—the distractions that will cause you to lose focus or lead you down the wrong interpretative path—are not all environmental or circumstantial. I’m not really talking about avoiding the annoying thing your kids are doing right now, or the weird noise coming from the radiator. I’m talking about the typical things we do as we read the Bible. Notes. Commentaries. Internet searches. Word studies.
Those things are good, don’t get me wrong, but they will short- circuit the reading process. You can use these things later. Don’t start with the commentaries, or the introduction in your study bible. Ignore the notes. As a general rule: don’t read other things while you’re reading this thing. Don’t let other voices distract you from this voice. Give the author of the book you are reading the respect of being heard, rather than talked about.
Actually, the problem is bigger than you think. As long as we’re talking about distracting things that change or short-circuit ordinary reading, let’s talk briefly about how most versions of the Bible are printer. It’s full of little bits and bobs that change the way you read. Sections headings. Footnotes. Cross references. Introductions for each biblical book. Red lettering. Text boxes with explanatory information. Let’s not stop there, because even if you take all those things out of it, those verse numbers and chapter numbers are not original to the text either. What is more, they break up the text into little chunks (often arbitrarily), and we do not naturally read in little chunks, we read in big chunks. You read ordinary books section by section, not word by word, but all the footnotes and verse numbers condition us to read the Bible verse by verse.
So I’d like to recommend buying a $20 book that will change your life. A Reader’s Bible. A Reader’s Bible removes all these secondary distracting bits. They are available for many of the most popular translations. You can get an ESV version here, or an NIV here. The first time you open it you’ll notice the difference. It looks like an “ordinary” book because all this extra stuff is removed, and I can almost guarantee you that it will change how you read. Anytime I’m preaching or teaching through a new book I start by reading that book in my reader’s ESV. This is also my go to for devotionals and personal reading. Obviously for bible studies and sermon prep I will need the verse numbers, but I start by reading the book the natural and ordinary way. A reader’s bible is great for that.
Have someone else do the reading for you
Another great tool is the audiobook. Now that may not, at first, seem all that “natural.” The disciples and earliest Christians didn’t have audiobooks! Ah, but they did! Remember that for many thousands of years the expectation was that these books would be first read aloud. For most individuals in the church—whether the earliest recipients of a given epistle, or the average church congregant prior to the modern era—the only access one had to Scripture was through public reading. Actually, the Bible itself witnesses to this. In Revelation, for example, John opens by blessing the one who “reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear” (1:3). John’s expectation is that this would be heard, and (probably) all at one in a single sitting. John expects that your access to his work is through someone reading it to you, and may they and you be blessed by it. So grab an audio bible—there are great free resources online—and push play.
Again, the result of this shift is bigger than just a shift in format. It will not only change how you read, it will change the way in which your reading is interpreted. Hearing the Bible engages a different part of your brain. What is more, it forces you to read in big chunks, rather than bits. You don’t have time to pause and think; on the contrary, you are “swept along.” Stephen King, in preparation for writing a sequel to one of his previous books, stated in an interview that he went back and listened to the audio recording of the original book. He found it fascinating. The audio version forced him to be swept along with the narrative. He didn’t have time for nitpicking, for questioning, for details. He was the passenger and could do little more than enjoy the ride. In other words, he was forced to receive the tale as one of his readers might read it. He couldn’t say “oh, I should have used this word instead of that word.” As such, it was perfect preparation for the sequel because it reminded him of the ethos and feel of the world he created, and thereby enabled him to jump back into the world for its sequel.
So it’s not only the case that having the Bible read to you corresponds with Biblical precedent and expectations, it’s also uniquely advantageous. It immerses you in the word in a living and personal manner, and as such it is particularly useful for interpretation. Of course, the best avenue for this is reading with and to other Christians, and especially in the context of public worship. But an audiobook is a helpful tool as well, and there are some great audio versions out there.
Read it All at Once, in a Single Sitting
Finally, as you sit down to read, commit yourself to reading the whole book, or at least a substantial portion of it. Force yourself to read large chunks, without pausing or backing up. As we mentioned above, we are conditioned to read the Bible in small bits rather than big bits. We pull it apart, slice it up, divide it into pieces. We only study it after it’s been dissected and cut up into its component parts, and then we wonder why it seems lifeless. Again, there is a stage in the reading process where this is appropriate and helpful (see the entries in this series), but this isn’t the way we ordinarily approach communication, and so we shouldn’t start there.
As you read, don’t back up. Don’t stop. Keep going. You might not understand this word or that verse or even whole paragraphs, but don’t be discouraged. You can always go back later and ask those kinds of questions. First get a sense of the forest. Read forwards. Don’t go back. Until you’re done.
Once you’re finished, sit back and meditate on what you read. What was it all about? Why was it written down? What impact does it have on my life? Keep these questions broad. You’re trying to capture the whole, not the parts.
This isn’t a new methodology. This is how you read other books and literature. The goal is to read “naturally,” that is, to read the work in a manner consistent with its intent and expectations. You want to reconstruct, as closely as possible, the way the author of the work assumes you will appropriate it, and that’s probably not verse by verse. Read big chunks, then do the difficult work of asking “what does it all mean.”
- Note: a version of this article was originally published on Christward Collective.