Chapter 7 - Observation
Systematic observation is the first and most basic phase in the actual
practice of personal Bible study. Often a person has lots of trouble
figuring out what a Bible passage means because he has not first
done the work of carefully and objectively observing what the passage says.
Observation Versus Interpretation
An observation is a statement regarding what the biblical text actually
says, how it says it, or what it omits.
An observation is not an interpretation. An observation
has to do with the factual, whereas an interpretation has to do with the
meaning and significance of the factual. Notice the distinctions
between observation and interpretation in the chart below.
|An observation states
||An interpretation states
which is indicated directly
by the biblical text. It is something that is concrete, explicit, evident, visible, and easily verifiable, in the text.
- an isolated fact
- or a relationship between facts
- or a pattern of relationships between facts
An observation can also be a statement of what the text omits.
An observation states with complete certainty what the text says.
those facts, relationships, or patterns.
This interpretation is not found explicitly in the text, but it must be based on (induced from) observations.
An interpretation states with varying degrees of certainty what the text means.
An interpretation is not an application.
- an explanation of the meaning or intent of
- or a summary of
- or a generalization based on
- or a principle derived from
- or the significance of
- or a conclusion, implication, or inference drawn from
- or a judgment about
It is very easy (and very common) for a person to claim that he observed
something, when in reality he both observed and interpreted it.
Very frequently we confuse the observation phase with the interpretation
phase, as in the following examples.
You see a family pack lots of camping equipment into a car and then
drive away. You may think that you "observed" them leaving on a camping
trip, but that is not what you observed at all. The interpretation
about leaving on a camping trip comes from inside your own head, based
on an assumption. All you actually observed was a family packing
lots of camping equipment into a car and then driving away. You have
confused observation with interpretation. In reality, they were taking
the equipment to a relative who was borrowing it for the weekend.
You see a man carrying a guitar case. You may think that you "observed"
a musician with his instrument, but again that is your interpretation,
not your observation. What you actually observed was a man carrying
a guitar case. You have assumed that there is a guitar in the case,
and you have assumed that people carrying instruments can play them.
In reality, he is a very non-musical father who has picked up a case for
his daughter's guitar at the music store.
Most misjudgments and misinterpretations in everyday experience could
be avoided if we would (1) observe more carefully, and (2) build our judgments
and interpretations on our observations rather than our assumptions.
Of course, doing this requires that we understand the distinction between
observation and interpretation.
Observing an Interpretation
Making careful observations in real life circumstances is much the same
as making careful observations on a passage in the Bible. However,
there is one difference. A biblical passage may state an interpretation
of its own (for example, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14; Matthew 7:12) or some generalization
or principle (for example, Romans 3:10-12; Colossians 3:23; John 3:36;
1 Thessalonians 5:18). In this case, when you restate that interpretation,
generalization, or principle you are merely making an observation, not
an interpretation, since you are merely stating something indicated directly
in the text. Later you may observe some relationship between this
general principle and one or more other items in the text and then infer
another generalization from these observations. But whenever the
text explicitly states an interpretation, your restatement of it is an
observation rather than an interpretation.
Interpretation Beyond Observation
So far we have stressed a distinction between observation of what the
text says and interpretation of what the text means. But we are not
suggesting that the text does not mean what it says! Often, what
the text says may not need any further interpretation to make good sense.
Its meaning is quite evident in what it says. In other words, usually
a passage will say exactly what it means and will mean exactly what it
says. Yet, there will often be additional significance and additional
inference beyond what the passage explicitly says. This is the point
at which the distinction between observation and interpretation comes into
For example, look at Acts 16:6-10.
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia,
having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province
of Asia. 7 When they
came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit
of Jesus would not allow them to. 8
So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9
During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging
him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10
After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia,
concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
This passage is explicitly about Paul's trip from present-day western Turkey
to Macedonia. The passage means what it says about where Paul went.
However, there is more meaning inherent in the passage than what is evident
on the surface. Although the passage is not explicitly about divine
guidance, it gives some very interesting insights into how God directed
Paul and how he may direct us as well. Notice that the call to preach
in Macedonia followed two negative commands (the Spirit kept them from
entering both Asia and Bithynia). God led Paul one step at a time,
rather than revealing his plans too far ahead of time. The point
here is that this interpretation about God's leading is not expressly
stated in the passage, yet it is based on observations of things that are
expressly stated in the passage. Thus, the passage says what it means
and means what it says about Paul's trip to Macedonia. No further
interpretation regarding where Paul went is needed. And when you
note where Paul went you are making an observation. However, when
you note how God led Paul, that is an interpretation, since you have put
several observations together to infer that interpretation.
"Mary Had a Little Lamb"
When dealing with a Bible passage, or any literature, we often confuse
observation with interpretation. We fail to make careful observation
of the text first, so that we are thoroughly familiar with exactly what
the text says, how it says it, and what it does not say. For example,
what does the well known nursery rhyme below say? Does it say that
a child named Mary had a lamb that went with her every time she went somewhere?
Mary had a little
According to what the text of this rhyme actually says, we really don't
know how old Mary was. Nor do we really know how often the lamb went
with Mary, if ever! When we make a careful distinction between observation
and interpretation, we see that some of our assumptions may be unfounded.
was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary
was sure to go.
He followed her to school
one day -
was against the rule.
It made the children laugh
a lamb at school.
And so the teacher turned
he lingered near;
And waited patiently about
Mary did appear;
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
"What makes the lamb love
"Oh, Mary loves the lamb,
||Resultant Interpretations and Questions
|1. The rhyme does not give Mary's age.
||1. Any age will harmonize with the rhyme. (Mary could have been a school age child, or a mother, or even a grandmother.)
|2. The rhyme does not say that the lamb ever went with Mary.
||2. Perhaps the lamb had a habit of sniffing out Mary's trail and thus following her path “everywhere” she went.
|3. Compare: “everywhere that Mary went” and “He followed her to school one day”
||3. Is this a contradiction? (Of course, the rhyme does not say that the lamb followed Mary to school only one day. However, it is very likely that the lamb did follow Mary to school only one day or a few days at most, since line 5 could hardly mean “as usual," and the author could have easily substituted “each day” for “one day” if that had been the intent.)
What about all the other days Mary went to school? Or did Mary (who could have been a parent or grandparent) go to school only one day?
The children's reaction in lines 7 and 8 would suggest that having a lamb at school was not a daily occurrence.
Perhaps the word “everywhere” as it is used in this context means something other than absolutely-every-place-with-absolutely-no-exceptions. “Everywhere” could be used in the sense that the lamb had been every place (at least once) that Mary had been. Or (and this is most likely the intent of the author's use of the word “everywhere”) it could be used merely in the sense that the lamb followed Mary very often when Mary went to a wide variety of places.
No matter what the traditional interpretation of the nursery rhyme might
be, it is a vague rhyme. It just does not say all that we traditionally
assume that it says. We have attempted to observe carefully exactly
what the rhyme actually says, and to consider various possible ways of
putting the evidence of the text together. But since the evidence
does not demand one interpretation above the others in the three issues
raised, no dogmatic interpretations are given above.
It may seem ridiculous to scrutinize a nursery rhyme so closely.
Yet, this sort of scrutiny is necessary, especially when we examine biblical
texts. The exercise with Mary and her lamb illustrates two errors
that are quite common in Bible study.
The first error is that of getting more out of the text than is actually
there by reading certain ideas into the text based on assumptions.
John records a situation in which, after Jesus had made a statement to
Peter, the disciples read more into that statement than they should have.
"If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You
must follow me." Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers
that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not
die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what
is that to you?" (John 21:22-23)
As a rule, the fewer assumptions you extend into the text, the fewer dogmatic
interpretations you will make, other factors being equal.
The second error is that of failing to appreciate the intent
of the writer by failing to integrate all of the text's evidence to help
you arrive at a meaningful understanding of the writer's actual thought.
Careful observation can help you avoid both errors.
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