Bible Study

Bible Book Backgrounds: Why You Need Them and Where to Find Them

It’s time for your daily Bible study. You’ve decided to study Habakkuk or Philippians or Lamentations.

When you pick up a random book of the Bible to study it, how do you know…

…what’s going on in biblical history at the time the book was written
…when the book was written and by whom
…who the intended audience was
…where, geographically, the action takes place
…cultural aspects of the period that will help you better understand allusions and customs?

Unless you’ve done a considerable amount of study in the field of biblical history and the ancient Middle East, the answer is: you probably don’t know all of those things. And, as a result, your study of the book you’ve chosen probably isn’t going to be as fully-orbed as it could be.

Not having done any advanced study in those areas myself, I learned a while back to rely on those who have, and who have taken the time to share their knowledge with the rest of us. When I study, teach, or write a study on a book of the Bible, I always start out by delving into the “story behind the story.” How?

Macro Bible Study 

Reading every book of the Bible is the best way to get a good grip on the meta-narrative of Scripture. Because the books of the Bible aren’t always arranged in order of the events they contain and because many books overlap in their events and timing, I highly recommend a chronological read-through of the Bible at least every few years.

Pay Attention to the Text

Sometimes the details you’re looking for are in the text itself. Perhaps a certain month and day are mentioned, or “during the reign of King ____.” If the text specifies a certain city or country, look it up on a good Bible map to get your bearings. Sometimes a particular custom or expression is explained as an aside, such as in 1 Samuel 9:9. Some books specify who they’re written to in the first few verses. Also be sure to use your Bible’s footnotes and cross reference notations, and look up any related verses that can bring clarity.

Footnotes explain wording.
Cross references suggest related passages.

Study Bibles

There are some fantastic study Bibles out there (and also some duds you’ll want to avoid). Here are a few I highly recommend:

  • The MacArthur Study Bible Great theology, clear explanations. The only thing I would improve if I could is that I wish there were more notes on the Old Testament. (Also see “Bible Introductions” below.)
  • The Faithlife Study Bible app It’s free! Lots of great notes, articles, and diagrams, and because it’s an app, it’s got links, videos, and other great features.
  • The ESV Study Bible Super comprehensive. It’s like having a set of commentaries and the entire text of Scripture in one book.
  • The ESV Archaeology Study Bible This one is really good for getting a feel for what life, culture, and customs were like in biblical times – food, family, work, neighboring pagan nations, etc. It’s also very helpful with biblical geography.

“Bible Book Backgrounds”

This would be an overview, or survey, to read before you begin the book of Scripture you’ll be studying. I’ve found it’s helpful to use a survey of the book as a foundation and framework for subsequent study of the text.

While some commentaries contain an introduction to each book of the Bible, many do not. But I’ve found several online sites that provide helpful Bible Book Backgrounds:

Bible Introductions at Grace to You- A thorough overview of every book of the Bible, written by John MacArthur. These are the same introductions you’ll find in the MacArthur Study Bible.

Bible Book Overviews at Reformed Answers- Just put the name of the book you’re looking for in the search bar, followed by the word “overview.” You’ll also find overviews of the literary divisions of the Bible, such as an overview of the epistles, wisdom literature, etc.

Bible Surveys at Got Questions- Use the search bar to find the book survey you’re looking for. All surveys except the four gospels are entitled, “Book of ____ – Bible Survey.” You’ll find Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as, “Gospel of ____.”

Helpful and (mostly) free Greek and Hebrew resources you might not know about at The Cripplegate- Sometimes getting some help with the original languages can also aid in your understanding of the book’s background and setting.

Dig in. Study. Search it out. Doing a “background check” on the book you’re studying is a great way to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s word.