Better Bible Study Tip #68: Try To Determine the Setting of the Book

When I say “try to determine the setting of the book”, I mean try to determine it’s author, the approximate time when it was written, the situation, and the author’s purpose.

It is important to remember that the Bible was written by humans. Don’t misunderstand me. The Bible is absolutely 100% God’s divinely inspired word. It is 100% true. It is 100% authoritative. It is not simply a human book. But at the same time, God used humans to write the Bible (see Bible study Tip #30: The Bible is 100% Divine and 100% Human).

It would be a mistake to imagine the process of inspiration as if a person simply falls into a mindless trance while the Spirit of God overtakes the muscles in their hand to fill a scroll with God’s words. I have no problem believing that God could have given us scripture that way if that’s what he had wanted to do, but that’s just not how the Bible describes itself. Yes, the inspired writers were carried along by the Holy Spirit as they wrote (2 Peter 1:20-21), but this does not mean that the writers were separated from their own purpose and agenda for writing. There are several places in the Bible that make this really clear.

These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.

1 Corinthians 4:14

For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

2 Corinthians 13:10

Even when God directly commanded something to be written down, the Bible doesn’t describe the person as losing control of their mind as they wrote (Ex. 17:14; Num. 5:23; Deut. 31:19, 30). This doesn’t mean the Bible is any less reliable. If we take the Bible as the Bible describes itself, we must conclude that God is powerful enough that he doesn’t have to separate a person from their own natural purpose and agenda in order to supernaturally produce the precise words that he wants them to write. He’s powerful enough to do this, even without using mind-control! (I don’t know about you, but I think that’s every bit as impressive, if not more impressive than the “mindless trance” idea).

Understanding this has important implications for good Bible study. Since God used humans to write Scripture, the more we understand what those humans were trying to communicate, the more we will understand what God was trying to communicate through them. That’s why understanding the historical setting of a book is important.

Of course many books of the Bible were written anonymously, and that’s okay. And some books are easier to situate in a particular moment in history than others (it helps to be familiar with biblical chronology, see Tip #67). That’s okay too. We can also recognize that God had the ability to communicate divine truths that go beyond what even the prophets themselves could comprehend (1 Peter 1:10-12). But the more we understand about who the author was, the historical situation in which they were writing, and their purpose for writing, the better grasp we will have of why the author writes the things he does, what he is trying to communicate, and why those things are important.