Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of His Servant?

A Procedure for Exegesis

I am posting this for the benefit of students of Hebrew exegesis.

I received it from my brother, and it seems to belong to Kenneth Matthews.

I hope that it is useful to all who take a look at it.



A Procedure for Exegesis – from Kenneth Matthews

What follows is a ten-step method for moving you from the Hebrew text in the study to the setting for your ministry. Although these ten steps are identified for our teaching purposes in a closed unilinear sequence, the actual practice of exegesis resists compartmentalizing the steps as isolated units. There will inevitably be the ebb and flow of the steps during the process of exegesis and there is an inherent interdependence of the parts. For example, a passage can only be accurately understood when the context and theology of the biblical author informs the interpreter what was the purpose of the passage. Biblical theology and Hebrew exegesis are not autonomous disciplines.

To illustrate the exegetical steps discussed below, we will consider Isaiah 6:1-5 as a sample text. The Hebrew text is found in the Addendum to this paper.


The first step is making a tentative translation of the Hebrew passage. This working translation is usually literal and awkward. Lexicons, such as Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB), are consulted; translation helps, such as Einspahr’s Index to the BDB, will assist you. Analytical lexicons may be used for assistance also, but remember that they contain mistakes. A Hebrew-English interlinear may be consulted to overcome persistent translation problems. For a bibliography of Hebrew language tools for translation, see the handout “Hebrew Language Resources for Exegesis.” The software program BibleWorks also provides morphological analysis.

English versions should be consulted to identify potential differences in meaning in translation but only after your own draft. Translation theories vary from the traditional formal (word-for-word) approach to the dynamic theory (idea-for-idea). Translations based on formal translation should be consulted initially; among the literal translations are KJV, NKJV, NASB, and NRSV. NIV provides a translation that makes a moderate use of the dynamic theory. Translations that rely on the dynamic theory are the NLT and GNB. For example, in Isaiah’s vision of the Lord, the KJV, NRSV, and others read “the Lord of hosts” (6:3), but the NIV has “the Lord Almighty.” What is the meaning of the Hebrew and why the difference in translations?

Isaiah 6:3

vAdq’ vAdq’ vAdq’ rm;a’w> hz<-la, hz< ar’q’w>

AdAbK. #r,a’h’-lk’ al{m. tAab’c. hw”hy>

“Then one cried out to the other and said, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sebaoth; the whole earth is filled with his glory.”


As you make the tentative translation, you will immediately observe things about the Hebrew text that catch your attention—such as key words, clause markers, repetitions, unusual constructions, and figures of speech. These should be noted immediately for later referral. In our sample case of Isa 6:1-5, you will notice the striking threefold repetition of vAdq’ (“holy”) (6:3). Does this repetition refer to the triune God, or is there another explanation derived from Hebrew usage for the repetition of the word?

Isaiah 6:3

vAdq’ vAdq’ vAdq‘ rm;a’w> hz<-la, hz< ar’q’w>

`AdAbK. #r,a’h’-lk’ al{m. tAab’c. hw”hy>

“Then one cried out to the other and said, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sebaoth; the whole earth is filled with his glory.”

After translation and the notation of your preliminary impressions, list the primary issues which you need to investigate further: e.g., literary genre and context, historical references, syntactical outline, key lexical items, textual problems, and theological contribution. In our passage in Isaiah, for example, what exactly is meant by the setting of “temple” and how might it be important for understanding this peculiar experience of the prophet (6:1)? Is this heaven’s temple that Isaiah sees, or is the vision occurring in the Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem?

Isaiah 6:1

bveyO yn”doa]-ta, ha,r>a,w” WhY”ZI[u %l,M,h; tAm-tn:v.Bi

lk’yheh;-ta, ~yailem. wyl’Wvw> aF’nIw> ~r’ aSeKi-l[;

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple.”


LITERARY FORM. The Bible is self-consciously literary, and proper interpretation requires you to determine the literary form (genre) of the passage. There are major literary forms, such as narrative, law, wisdom, gospel, and epistolary; there are also subcategories within each major category, such as report, parable, chronicle in the major category of narrative. It is incumbent upon you to recognize the major form and then the subcategory. For our sample passage of Isaiah 6:1-5, the passage is made up of different literary genre. What are the literary forms used?

Many times, the specific historical or social setting, such as temple or city gate, that gave rise to the literary form cannot be determined. Even if discovered, this information cannot be decisive in your interpretation since the Hebrew author modified the form for his own setting, as in borrowing the forensic form of lawsuit and adapting it for a prophetic message addressed to the nation (e.g., Hosea 4). As a consequence biblical commentators can only speculate about the original setting of a form, and therefore the proposed original situation cannot be confidently known unless the biblical text itself gives the circumstances. Healthy skepticism of such claims and the consultation of several good commentaries are the best antidotes to a misguided reading of the passage.

LITERARY CONTEXTS. Another literary concern that must be addressed is the literary contexts of the passage. On a practical basis, this requires the interpreter to read the biblical book in English or at least the major section of the book in which the passage occurs. In the case of an independent unit, such as a psalm or proverb, the contextual study will be limited or even unnecessary.

By the plural term “Contexts,” we mean the broadening, concentric circles of contexts that play a part in a passage’s full canonical meaning. These are cited here: (1) the text, (2) its immediate context, (3) the entire book, and (4) the entire canonical OT and NT. Explain the circles of context for Isa 6:1-5. Consider why the passage occurs where it does in the book and how it contributes to the author’s purpose. For example, the commissioning of Isaiah is found in Isaiah chapter 6 rather than chapter 1 as would be expected if a chronological order were chosen. What is the point of the topical arrangement made by the author?


Read biblical reference books, such as histories, dictionaries, and introductions, to appreciate the historical setting of the book in general and the passage in particular. Consider any specific allusions to persons, places, and events in the passage. Utilize what information has been reasonably reconstructed from ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology. Remember that Israel had many things in common with its neighbors and these shared cultural experiences can be illuminating. In our example of Isaiah’s call, the date formula reads, “in the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1). What is the significance of this king? How did he die? How would this king contrast to the “King of Glory” witnessed by Isaiah?

Isaiah 6:1

bveyO yn”doa]-ta, ha,r>a,w” WhY”ZI[u %l,M,h; tAm-tn:v.Bi

lk’yheh;-ta, ~yailem. wyl’Wvw> aF’nIw> ~r’ aSeKi-l[;

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple.”


Establish the text by considering textual problems. Only the ones crucial to the exposition are necessary to pursue. A comparison of English versions, consulting technical commentaries, and scanning the Hebrew apparatus itself will indicate what issues are important enough to merit your attention. First, consider the external evidence (i.e., ancient texts/versions) and internal evidence (i.e., scribal habits) which may be involved; second, give consideration to modern English versions as to what textual decisions the translators made. As a general practice, do not speculate on a proposed emendation without supporting evidence from ancient texts (e.g., LXX, SP).

Fortunately, in our sample passage of Isa 6:1-5, there is no serious textual problem of significance. For purposes of discussion, Gen 4:8 in the Cain/Abel story will serve as a good example. The KJV, NASB and others read “And Cain talked to Abel his brother” (KJV). The NRSV, NIV and many others have this dialogue included: “Let us go out to the field” (NRSV). What do the ancient versions have (e.g., LXX)? How would Cain’s dialogue impact your understanding of his deed?

Genesis 4:8

hd,F’B; ~t’Ayh.Bi yhiy>w: wyxia’ lb,h,-la,’ !yIq; rm,aYOw:

WhgEr>h;Y:w: wyxia’ lb,h,-la, !yIq; ~q’Y”w:

“And Cain said to Abel, his brother. When they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and he killed him.”

LXX kai. ei=pen Kain pro.j Abel to.n avdelfo.n auvtou/ die,lqwmen eivj to. pedi,on kai. evge,neto evn tw/| ei=nai auvtou.j evn tw/| pedi,w| kai. avne,sth Kain evpi. Abel to.n avdelfo.n auvtou/ kai. avpe,kteinen auvto,n

“And Kain spoke to Abel, his brother, “Let’s go to the field.” And it came to pass while they were in the field, Kain rose against Abel, his brother, and killed him.”


This step of the exegesis is the most significant and usually requires the most effort. Study the clauses, phrases, and words of the passage—their grammatical and syntactical roles. The syntactical categories (e.g., genitive, causal clause) learned in class are designed to help explicate the meaning of the sentence. They are not in themselves the goal of the expositor. Be selective and do not get trapped by unnecessary trivia.

In Isa 6:5 the prophet exclaims, “Woe is me”! And then the text proceeds with three successive clauses, all introduced by the conjunction yKi, which have been variously translated in the modern versions. What is the relationship of the clauses to the prophet’s fearful exclamation? Do they reinforce, explain, and/or give cause?

Isaiah 6:5

ykinOa’ ~yIt;p’f.-amej. vyai yKi ytiymed>nI-yki”yli-ywoa rm;aow”

bveAy ykinOa’ ~yIt;p’f. amej.-~[; %Atb.W

yn”y[e War’ tAab’c. hw”hy> %l,M,h;-ta, yKi

“And I said, ‘Woe is me! Indeed, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Sebaoth.’”


Word studies usually give your teaching a depth that enriches the audience’s appreciation of the message. Many expositors become too infatuated with word studies, however. Lexical items alone are not sufficient for an adequate exposition of a passage; exegesis is not a string of selected word studies found in a passage. Therefore, study

only the word(s) upon which the message of the passage depends or which is repeated for emphasis in the passage.

First, scan the definitions of the word in BDB and, second, use a Hebrew concordance (e.g., Mandelkern, Lisowsky) to study the usage of the word. Discover what the meaning of the word is in the specific passage you are interpreting as opposed to what the word means generally. In your concordance work, look for non-theological uses to illustrate concretely the meaning of the word. Pursue the word study as far as practically possible and draw on word study books to complete your study (e.g., New Inter’l Dictionary of OT Theology and Exegesis, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, and Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).

For example, vAdq’ (“holy”) is critical to the meaning of Isaiah 6 and deserves special attention. Should “holy” be defined according to its etymological sense, “separateness, otherness”? Or its usage, “the divine sphere”? Also, what is the significance of the word ~ypir’f. (“seraphs,” Isa 6:2)? Is this term related to the word for “serpents” (Num 21:6; Deut 8:15; Isa 14:29; 30:6) as some suggest? Is BDB right in associating “seraph” with a mythical being?

Isaiah 6:2

dx’a,l. ~yIp;n”K. vve ~yIp;n”K. vve Al l[;M;mi ~ydIm.[o ~ypir’f.

@peA[y> ~yIT;v.biW wyl’g>r; hS,k;y> ~yIT;v.biW wyn”p’ hS,k;y> ~yIT;v.Bi

“Seraphs were standing above him; each had six wings, with two wings he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.”


After the study of the syntactical parts, synthesize the passage by relating its parts to the whole passage. Do not leave your analysis of the text in fragments. This step requires a final syntactical outline of the expositional points and sub-points derived from the exegesis. Then, summarize the passage in a single sentence. For example, Isa 6:1-5 is:

The true, living King of Israel revealed his holiness to the prophet Isaiah and in awesome fear for his life Isaiah acknowledged his sin and that of the nation.

Also, your own final translation is in order. As a rule, however, do not use your own translation in the pulpit. For the purpose of teaching or preaching, choose from the English versions the one that comes closest to the conclusions of your exegesis. Many times a particular translation is the standard used by an audience. In this case, as you use the accepted English version, you can refer to other translations when they possess the better rendering. For example, Isa 6:4 in the KJV has “and the posts of the door moved.” If the exegetical study leads you to prefer another rendering, such as “and the foundations of the threshold trembled” (NASB), then you may refer to the alternative for clarification and support.


Do not neglect the literary and historical dimensions of the passage. Otherwise, you will be interpreting the passage out of its natural context, including theologically.

Ask yourself the following, “What kind of response did the ancient author expect of the original audience?” And “What does the passage tell me about God”? These are the fundamental questions that will direct your thoughts to the contributions of the passage to biblical theology and the Christian message. This will require an understanding of biblical theology as an organic unity, which accepts the relationship of the Testaments as the coherent, self-consistent, transcendent Word of God. The hermeneutical requirements for the particular genre in which the passage occurs must be observed (e.g., law, psalm, oracle).

Ask yourself the following questions that will enable you to move from the general to the specific applications of the message: What is the theology of the whole book? How does this specific passage contribute to it? What does the passage say about God? His kingdom? His world and people? What does the New Testament say regarding these questions? Does the New Testament offer a commentary on the passage under consideration? How specific can the application legitimately be made? Are there some aspects of the passage, which are limited to the ancient cultural setting and therefore inappropriate for today’s Christian? What are the underlying principles that are still valuable for the individual Christian, the church collectively, and the “global village”?

In the example of Isaiah 6, you will want to include John 12:41 which comments on Isaiah’s vision. Who did Isaiah actually see in the temple, according to the apostle John? How did John make use of the Isaiah passage? How should you make use of it in your lesson or sermon?


Formal design, illustration, and delivery of the exposition should naturally emerge from the exegesis. This involves the tools and skills of homiletics. Resist the temptation to impose on the exegetical flow of the passage your own private agenda. Beware also preaching your exegetical notes. An exegetical paper is not a sermon and the pulpit is not the seminary lectern.

The Role of the Holy Spirit and Prayer

Although the intangibles of interpreting the text are treated here last, they are preeminent in the preparation of any passage for teaching or preaching. Roy B. Zuck suggests the following points in his discussion of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and interpretation (1 John 2:27).[1]

1. The Holy Spirit does not give new revelation on a par with Scripture.

2. He does not guarantee that our interpretations are infallible.

3. He does not give one person new insights that no one else has.

4. Many non-Christians can apply sound hermeneutics to understand the meaning of Scripture; without the Spirit, however, they refuse to apply it adequately to their lives.

5. Understanding is not the exclusive domain of biblical scholars.

6. Spiritual devotion on the part of the interpreter is crucial.

7. Lack of spiritual preparation can hinder correct interpretation.

8. There is no substitute for diligent study.

9. The Spirit does not rule out study helps.

10. He does not override common sense and logic.

11. He does not normally give sudden intuitive flashes.

12. The Spirit’s role in hermeneutics is part of the process of illumination.

13. He does not make all of the Bible equally clear.

14. He does not ensure comprehensive understanding.

Do you agree with the points made by Zuck? If you disagree with one or more of the points, why do you disagree?


ISAIAH 6:1-5

ha,r>a,w” WhY”ZI[u %l,M,h; tAm-tn:v.Bi 1

`lk’yheh;-ta, ~yailem. wyl’Wvw> aF’nIw> ~r’ aSeKi-l[; bveyO yn”doa]-ta,

~yIT;v.Bi dx’a,l. ~yIp;n”K. vve ~yIp;n”K. vve Al l[;M;mi ~ydIm.[o ~ypir’f. 2

`@peA[y> ~yIT;v.biW wyl’g>r; hS,k;y> ~yIT;v.biW wyn”p’ hS,k;y>

rm;a’w> hz<-la, hz< ar’q’w> 3

`AdAbK. #r,a’h’-lk’ al{m. tAab’c. hw”hy> vAdq’ vAdq’ vAdq’

`!v'[‘ aleM’yI tyIB;h;w> areAQh; lAQmi ~yPiSih; tAMa; W[nUY”w: 4

ykinOa’ ~yIt;p’f.-amej. vyai yKi ytiymed>nI-yki yli-yAa rm;aow” 5

bveAy ykinOa’ ~yIt;p’f. amej.-~[; %Atb.W

`yn”y[e War’ tAab’c. hw”hy> %l,M,h;-ta, yKi

[1] Referred to in Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, An Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 425-26.

2 responses

  1. Tiberius Rata

    Yes, this belongs to my friend and former colleague Ken Mathews who teaches at Beeson Divinity School and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

    October 8, 2008 at 8:42 pm

  2. Raj

    Thank you Dr. Rata for posting this helpful article.. We love to hav u back soon..!

    November 30, 2008 at 8:24 am

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