When studying the Bible, before we ask the question, “What is God saying to me personally today”, it is essential that we first ask the question, “What message was both the divine and human author intending to convey to the audience?” Each of the 66 books of the Bible was inspired through human authors steeped in their culture, in many different cultural settings over a span of 1500 years. Without some understanding of the author and setting to determine the message they intended to convey, we are prone to misinterpretation.
My absolute, most favorite resource is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, recommended by my hermeneutics professor in seminary. This book is essential for everyone to read who teaches the Bible, facilitates Bible studies, or just wants to seriously study and understand the message of each type of genre in the Bible and applying it to life today. The authors conversationally point out the interpretation problems that come with not understanding the author's intent and setting and provide guidelines for application. It's not an easy book to just sit down and read lightly and leisurely, but it is insightfully rich and worth every effort.
While I have a stack of books and study Bibles that give quick summaries on each biblical book, my favorite book to go to is How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. They provide specific advice on how to read the message of each book. However, they assume the readers are familiar with theological jargon, so it is not a book I would hand to a friend who is reading the Bible for the first time.
A better basic selection would be William Marty and Boyd Seevers’ book The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible. The authors are also professors who have dedicated their lives to studying and teaching the Bible, but they set aside the theological jargon without dumbing down their summaries. For each book of the Bible they provide the setting in which it was written, a brief summary, and its significance by pointing out what is important for each book. In the section on the book’s significance, they also share insights on how the message of the book may be applied today. If you have a study Bible that provides introductions to each book, this book doesn’t offer a whole lot more, but it is an excellent brief summary which lives up to its title as a “Quick-Start Guide”. Whether you are reading the Bible for the first time or you need a quick refresher before diving into study, I highly recommend this concise and easy-to-read guide. (I was provided a complimentary copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for my honest review.)
Still, I cannot speak highly enough of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth when looking for understanding and keys for interpretation. I wish there was a more concise summary of this book readily available for those who want just a brief summary in the style of The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible, but with more substance. Maybe I will write one.