Useful Tools for Solo Bible Study

Bible Study Image 2018
I took this photo about a year ago when I was studying through Samuel and Kings for the 2nd time.  This is the coffee table in my living room with an ottoman pulled up to my left to create a casual, L-shaped space I can spread out in.  I love it.  It’s my happy place.

I do not spend every waking hour of my life doing serious nerdtastic bible study.  My contact with scripture doesn’t look like a deep struggle for knowledge and understanding every day.  On most days, my Bible exposure looks like 15-minute intervals of fitting in some time with God between errands.  This can be listening to a podcast or sermon in the car.  It can be prayer and a quick reading of familiar passages before sleep.  It can be watching a Bible Project video or having the Dwell app on while I wash dishes.  It can also be a few minutes in the morning with coffee and a reading plan.  Many, many days look like this, and that is a good thing.

This kind of contact with scripture or pastoral teaching is brief and devotional in nature, so it falls more appropriately into the category of worship than the category of study.

I want people to start mentally separating these acts of worship, done for the purpose of drawing near to God, from the purposeful and ordered discipline of Bible study.  They are both good.  They are both foundational to a life spent faithfully following Jesus, but they are not the same.  They support one another but they have different goals and require different tools.

I will tell you–and I believe this absolutely–that all you need for true Bible study is the Bible, a willing heart, and the investment of time.

It can be done that way.  It has been done that way by countless people over the centuries, and the value of a man or woman sitting with an open Bible and an engaged mind is not to be dismissed or discounted.

For most of us, however, the use of some basic tools will make the process of learning and retaining what we study in scripture a lot smoother and a lot more efficient.

Tools I Use in Bible Study

Everything I’m about to list here is optional.  These are the things that work for me, but we are, all of us, incredibly divergent in how we absorb new information and how we assist ourselves in retaining what we’ve learned.  The key is to find a schedule, a method, and a set of tools that work for you.

1.) A Bible You Can Actually Read
For almost everyone in 2019, the King James Version of the Bible is difficult and unwieldy for reading and study.  We don’t form our sentences like they did 400 years ago, and many of the English words chosen by the King James translation team no longer mean what they meant in the 17th century.  There are other translations of the Bible out there that, like the KJV, have many virtues but are difficult to simply read.  I find the NRSV and the ESV just stifling to get through (and I’m a smart lady with a lot of confidence in my ability to read formal and historical English).  When we study the Bible, it is very useful if we can get right down to the work without having to re-translate the translation, first.  Make sense?

Everyone’s mileage will vary on this, and the fact that we have so many translations to choose from–all accurate, all faithful –is “an embarrassment of riches.”  So use this amazing privilege of choice we have.  To make the choice well, you’ll need to read passages from several translations before choosing “the one.”  This will take some directed effort, but if Tyndale and Luther could see the abundance we have…I think it might well just make them collapse in utter amazement.  The effort to choose well will be worth it.

I highly recommend both the NLT and the CSB for those who are new to serious study.  Both are scholarly translations done with care and consideration.  Both have been put together with attention paid to all of the available manuscripts.  Both have been translated to an elementary school reading level, so you won’t be constantly running for a dictionary.  They are not “dumbed down;”  They are clearly written.

The New Living Translation (NLT) – Translation Philosophy & Process

The Christian Standard Bible Translation (CSB) – Translation Philosophy and Process

Whatever translation you choose, read the translation team’s statements online.  These explain how and why a translation was made.  Read multiple passages in that translation until you have a feel for how it’s going to work for you (or not) as a whole.  It doesn’t matter how scholarly a translation is or how faithful it is to the structure of the Hebrew and Greek underneath if you can’t understand it or get frustrated trying to use it.  If you won’t read it, it’s a bad translation for you.

2.) A Translation that you Have Never Used Before
This is pretty straightforward.  If you’ve spent your entire life using the NIV or the KJV or the ESV, then you likely already have pieces of certain passages in the back of your mind.  They are “stored up treasure,” and that’s a beautiful thing.  Our Christ Jesus told us to work toward this, so please understand that I am not in any way suggesting it’s a bad thing.

In bible study, however, a new-to-you translation will be a huge benefit.  It’s just how the brain works.  By forcing your brain to engage with even the most familiar passages, you will see things and hear things that you would absolutely miss if you “already know how that one goes.”

Reading The Lord’s Prayer in the NLT for the first time was revelatory.  I had spoken this prayer aloud nearly every day of my life for decades, and I learned it precisely as it appears in the KJV, as most of us have.  Having the same prayer presented to me in a different way changed something incredibly familiar into something new.  It disarmed my rote familiarity and re-engaged my thinking.  I could not possibly overstate how important that was for me, so I think it will probably be good for others, too.

I strongly advise you to choose an unfamiliar translation if you are a long-time churchgoer or a lifelong reader of the Bible who is about to embark upon a deeper level of study.


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3.) The Bible Gateway Website
It is often quite useful to compare multiple translations in parallel.  Bible Gateway is by far the most intuitive free resource for this online.  I love it.  I use it almost every day for one thing or other.  It is absolutely indispensable for helping you choose a translation for study.  It is also indispensable for helping you drill down hard on word studies and the various English words that can illuminate the Hebrew or Greek term underneath.

On the Bible Gateway Home Page, you can compare any passage of any length with any other English or Spanish translation.  There is a seriously long list of other languages, too.  You can have four translations up in parallel at a time.  This free tool is utterly amazeballs.  Bookmark it.  Get the app if they have one.  I mean…go all-in with Bible Gateway.  It’s your new best friend.

My desk – with my basic colors toolkit deliberately fanned out for you to see.  As a side note:  yes, that’s a WoW mat depicting the Burning of Teldrassil.  Yes, I still play.  /wink

4.) Colors.  All of Them
This may not have the same level of benefit for others that it has for me, but my brain loves colors.  I have, since childhood, passively color-coded just about everything.  Monday is blue.  Tuesday is green.  Wednesday is yellow.  I don’t know why.  They just are, okay?

I do this with pretty much everything, and I remember things as images most of the time.  If the image-memory has a color attached, I can recall it more clearly.  This is where highlighting and colored flags and pens and post-its come in for me.  If your brain works similarly, you probably already know what I mean.  This tip will help you a lot.  If your brain doesn’t work this way…your mileage may vary.  Take what you like from this and leave the rest.  🙂

I use a color system that my brain just naturally gravitated toward for highlighting in my Bible.  Blue is for highlights regarding angels and other creatures from the heavenly realm.  Orange is for highlights referring back to the sacrifice system and symbolism unique to Leviticus.  Pink is for verses that are special to me.  Green is for indicating new bloodlines/kingly lines.  Yellow is for general highlights.  And so on.   You will, no doubt, choose your own colors for your own system.  I recommend the following highlighters for this purpose (both are pictured above) because the colors are muted and do not bleed through bible pages.  **Use a light touch with wet highlighters, but I use both of these brands in my She Reads Truth Bible, which has notoriously thin paper stock.  I don’t get bleeds.

Pilot Frixion Light Pastel Highlighters

Stabilo Cool Pastel Highlighters

**If you press down when using a wet-ink highlighter, it will soak through.  After years of highlighting in textbooks and the Bible, I’ve developed a much lighter touch with highlighters, and the two I recommended above (as well as the Sharpie pen highlighter in yellow–and yellow only) do not bleed for me in my various bibles. 

I recommend, if you’re new to highlighting, that you test out a new highlighter in your Bible somewhere.  use an index or a blank page or something that won’t ruin anything if there is bleed-through.  Test out your highlighters on your Bible’s paper before you start using them in the text.

Color coding helps me retain.  I use color-coded flags in my notebooks and I use colored post-its in my study guides/blog post planning.  I used colored pens when writing notes.  So…color.  That’s what I’m saying to you.  If your brain uses color to categorize things this way…do this stuff from day one with intention and purpose.  Get some color systems that work for you and go nuts.

This…this right here.  This is my joy and my passion.  The Lord, in his infinite mercy and goodness, made me a lover of books.  These sit directly behind my desk where I can grab them for reference when I need them.

5.) Get Some Basic Reference Helpers
If you’re new to serious attempts to study the Bible, you’re going to want some basic helps before you get very far into it.  Bible dictionaries and concordances are extremely useful, and so are complete commentaries.  I’m no longer a fan of whole-Bible commentaries because I’ve moved beyond what they offer, but that first year, I devoured my Believer’s Bible Commentary.  They are worth every cent.

People seem to like doing everything on a screen nowadays, but there is evidence just pouring in all over the place that studying a hard copy (i.e. a real book) produces better retention than studying from a device.  Look for sales.  Get some basic reference books as you find yourself needing them.  Make room on a shelf or table, and get your Bible reference library started.

My Old Testament commentary shelf.  This represents 3 solid years of studying Leviticus.  You build your collection one book at a time, as needed, and as funds are available.  Don’t go nuts all at once.  Books cost money, and even if that isn’t a concern for you…don’t buy too much at once and overwhelm yourself.  Choose carefully and deliberately.

6.) Commentaries
Go slow and soft with commentaries at first.  Commentary is abundant, but it can get really expensive…and it’s not always helpful.  Once you’ve read through a book of scripture, and you’ve determined that you need serious help understanding it, commentary should be on the table.  Not all commentaries are equal, and I’d go so far as to say they’re all very unequal. Very few commentaries are in agreement with one another down the line.  Even so, they are still very, very useful for learning.  Once you’ve read the book yourself and really concentrated on learning what it says, a commentary can help you refine your understanding.  It can show you things you missed.  It can illustrate symbols you didn’t understand.  Bible commentaries are a beautiful thing.

The problem with commentary is that people tend to give it the weight of authority.  It doesn’t really have any.  Commentary is a book about what someone thinks about scripture.  It is not scripture.  Keep it in its place.  I’ve read some commentaries that I know are just flat-out wrong.  I’ve read some that I disagree with, even though the commentary is solid, well-reasoned, and faithful.  I’ve read some that absolutely lit up a book of scripture for me.  It’s a mixed bag because people are a mixed bag, and commentaries are written by people.

7.) The Bible Project – Book Overview Videos
The Bible Project is amazeballs.  It’s a huge, massive, and spectacularly ginormous project by Tim Mackie, Jon Collins, and all the staff who help them.  They provide a truly unbelievable amount of content for free, and their overview videos are just the first thing to love.  Here is the one about the book of Leviticus.  They have videos like this for every book of the Bible.

As you enter each new book of scripture, start by watching the videos Bible Project has made for that book and its genre.  The short videos just help you set up your thinking for the shapes and themes you’re about to study in a really clear way.

You can find the main “Watch” page for their videos HERE

5 thoughts on “Useful Tools for Solo Bible Study

  1. THIS IS FABULOUS! Thank you so much for sharing. It’s been tens of years, honestly, since I’ve *studied* scripture, I think. I needed this encouragement~you make me look forward to it again!

  2. It is my very favorite thing – the study. There is something so satisfying about finding an answer I was looking for and being able to know–because I studied it top to bottom–that it’s a correct and true answer to the question.

    I’m kind of dancing around all the minor prophets right now because I’m not terribly familiar with any of them, and I’ve totally forgotten a few. I think I might have to dive back into those at some point soon. I don’t particularly care for poetry in the first place, and poetry removed from its own language is even worse. ha ha! I’ve avoided the Psalms and all the prophets for that reason. It’s so funny to me that the book of scripture so many people relate to the strongest and enjoy the most (Psalms) is the one I really hate having to study in. I don’t even like reading them, to be honest. But I’m getting over it, slowly, because when I read Psalms now, I am starting to recognize what they’re referencing from other parts of the Bible. Little breadcrumbs left behind by my previous studies are helping me love the parts of scripture I didn’t like much before.

    So we keep working, and there are little gifts and rewards along the way. I love Bible study, and it can go from periods of being just ecstatic and driven by discovery to times of much calmer, more obedient endurance. A schedule helps for me–getting a time in the day when you just habitually sit down to spend some time.

  3. We hold similar feelings about the Psalms! I am growing to love certain ones now (OH Psalm 139 is a balm! Thanks to Sons of Korah…), but for a very long time they did not bring me the comfort others spoke of, and I couldn’t imagine staying in them for years as some have! ~sandi

  4. Thanks for sharing all of these suggestions. And finally someone who agrees about the ESV! I’ve really tried with it over the years but I just can’t take to it. I think your description of it as “stifling” fits well. On the other hand, I was warned by others that the NASB would be too “wooden” to stick with, but it has become my favorite translation. There is an excellent app for the NASB called Literal Word that you can use offline that has cross-refs and lexicons built-in ( Ditto on The Bible Project too – what a resource. Their new videos keep getting better.

    I agree with you about going “slow and soft” with commentaries and not placing undue weight on them. I’ve been guilty of doing minimal wrestling with a passage before throwing up my hands to see what an expert has to say. When I first began to read the Bible for myself, I didn’t have any commentaries so I didn’t have them to fall back on. I miss those days 🙂

    John Piper also has some advice on choosing translations that I found helpful:

    Thanks for the encouragement to press on in our own studies!

    1. I feel so validated to find someone else who isn’t an ESV fan. My brother LOVES the ESV, and it seems to be such a staple in churches nowadays. I like using the ESV for comparison, but for reading and personal study, my favorite–hands down–is the NLT. The NLT gets knocked a lot by people who think it’s just an update of the Living Bible (the 1970’s version of the Message Bible). It’s not, and the transcendent beauty of some of the verses is just knock-me-down wonderful. I think for plain-ol’ devotional reading, it might always be my favorite. Time will tell.

      I love that you found a translation that makes you happy. It really is just an overabundance of blessing we have in ways to access the Bible in our own language. Such bounty that no one dared to even dream of just two generations ago. I try to remember to stop and be grateful.

      Merry Christmas, Joe. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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