If we grow in our ability to interpret the Bible, that can always help our relationship with God, because we will hear God speak to us through Scripture more clearly. Perhaps the most important skill to learn for interpreting Scripture is to read a passage in its literary context. What does it mean to read Scripture in light of the literary context, and why is the literary context so important?
By giving attention to the literary context, I mean that we interpret words in light of the verses of the Bible in which they’re found. And we interpret verses in light of the immediate sections of Scripture in which they’re found. And we interpret small sections of verses in light of chapters and large sections of a book of the Bible. And we interpret chapters and large sections of a book of the Bible in light of the book as a whole. Words, sentences, passages, and chapters “take their meaning from the biblical book of which they are a part” (Jeannine Brown, Scripture as Communication, 213). In short, making use of the literary context means that we interpret words and verses according to what we find in the immediate and surrounding passages.
The literary context is important because it helps to keep us on track. Too often we try and make a piece of Scripture fit our own preconceived notions. When we read something in its literary context, we have to face what’s really in the text, so that we don’t accidentally (or purposefully) make Scripture say whatever we want it to say. When we read a verse in its literary context, we must deal with the verse in light of what the rest of its own context is saying. A good literary approach allows Scripture to have its own voice. The literary context is also important because it’s clarifying. It’s very hard to see the meaning of a text if we don’t understand what the author says before and after that given piece of text. Many meanings are possible when we don’t read something in context. The literary context gives us much more to work with, so that we have the author’s own guidance to clarify the meaning.