A large part of our work to understand the Bible stems from the distance between time and place. Assuming John wrote Revelation in the 90s AD, we are separated from the most recent Bible book by about 1,900 years. Old Testament chronology tacks on a few more millennia.
This separation means that we are not always familiar with the people and places mentioned in our preaching text. Fortunately, biblical scholars have investigated the background of God’s Word for centuries. With a little work and the right tools, we can come to a good understanding of the Bible’s world.
Whenever our preaching text mentions a person or place, it is time to break out the concordance program, Bible Atlas, and Bible dictionary.
If you are still building your reference library, then you can’t go wrong by purchasing the Holman Bible Atlas or the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. The ESV Bible Atlas is also an excellent resource. The four volume International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised Edition would also be beneficial. Many other dictionaries and encyclopedias exist, but these will give you a good start.
Using these tools is simple, but important.
First, use a concordance or concordance program to look up all the references to a person or place. For instance, in 2 Samuel 11:3, the writer states that Bathsheba is the daughter of Eliam. A quick search reveals that Eliam is only mentioned again in 2 Samuel 23:34. He, like his son-in-law Uriah, was one of David’s mighty men. Also, Eliam’s father, Ahithophel the Gilonite, is listed in 23:34. A concordance search of Ahithophel shows him to be a conspirator with Absalom during the time of David’s exile.
These close connections make David’s sin with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of Uriah more heinous. Despite knowing Bathsheba’s heritage, David sent for her. Her grandfather was one of David’s close counselors and her husband and father were two of his mighty men. David admits that his sin is ultimately against God, but he also betrayed close companions.
These facts can be found without going beyond the Bible. This type of discovery is why the first step is to see what God has told us about a certain person or place.
After concordance work, the second step is to consult Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. These resources contain articles about the persons and places mentioned in the Bible. This step must not be skipped, since many people and places share names. For instance, sermons have been preached about Herod without the preacher knowing the difference between Herod the Great and his descendants. Reading the entries will ensure that you do not make that type of mistake.
To study a location, begin with the same type of concordance search. The second step, however, is to consult a Bible atlas. With the atlas you can discover location, distance, and topography. These details can shed light on the meaning of a text. A person’s travel route may well be an important detail because of distance or changing in setting. The original audience understood the geography. We do not.
After using the atlas, consult Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias about the location.
Since our goal in expository preaching is to discover and communicate the author’s intended meaning, then we must exhaust every avenue of investigation. Understanding background and geographical details is a key step to unlocking the meaning of a text.