My 11-year old son told me his friends got bored last weekend. They decided to disassemble a microwave. Parts were scattered all over their driveway. I suppose they then re-assembled it. It must have been a painstaking process, but now they know that microwave inside and out.
A syntactical analysis does the same with a paragraph of Scripture. It disassembles the paragraph to understand how all the parts work. Then, it re-assembles the paragraph. The purpose is to determine the author’s single meaning. I wrote about the Impact of Syntax elsewhere. Now, I’d like to put it to practice.
The majority of your studies should take, as a minimum, one paragraph of Scripture (sometimes called a “pericope”). Why? Generally, a paragraph expresses a single thought-unit. A paragraph typically consists of 2 elements: (1) a main proposition and (2) supporting propositions. Analyzing how any supporting points feed into the main point is the most tedious (but most rewarding) task we face in interpretation. Why? Because we want to be careful to emphasize what God emphasizes. It will not do to extract a supporting idea and make it dominate the main idea of the paragraph. That runs the risk of changing the author’s emphasis, which could alter his meaning. Paragraphs typically include three parts:
- Phrases. A group of words without a subject and a predicate. An example is, “In the beginning . . .”
- Clauses. A group of words with a subject and a verb. Some can stand alone (independent clauses). Others may not (dependent clauses). An example of a clause is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world . . .”
- Sentences. The idea expressed when the two (clauses and phrases) come together to form a complete thought.
Here is a five-step checklist to follow when studying a paragraph’s syntax:
- Isolate the main proposition (the main point).
- Identify the supporting propositions (the sub-points).
- Analyze the proper weight (emphasis) given to each sub-point.
- Search for any natural divisions in the paragraph (connecting words/phrases, particles, conjunctions, etc.).
- Reassemble and begin to write-out your findings.
You don’t need to be super-technical. You merely are looking for the (1) the main point and (2) the sub-points. It may seem difficult at first, but it is like riding a bicycle. Once you learn how, you never forget it.
Put it to Practice
A famous example is Ephesian 5:15-23:
15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence.
How many times have we heard preachers isolate, extract, and explode verse 18, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery,” and then rail against the abuses of drunkenness for 45 minutes? While we agree the sin of drunkenness is destructive, we must ask, “Is that the point of this God-breathed paragraph?” Once we disassemble it, examine its parts, and re-assemble it . . . we find the Apostle Paul had a different emphasis entirely. Let’s do it.
First, isolate the main proposition (the main point).
- Main Point: Paul explained how to live wisely (v. 15a). “Look” is an imperative, a command. It governs the entire paragraph. “Look carefully then how you walk” is euphemism for living wisely.
Second, identify the supporting propositions (the sub-points).
- Supporting Point #1: Make the most of your time . . . (v. 15b-16). This tells how to live wisely. It is subordinate to the imperative, “Look . . . how you walk.”
- Supporting Point #2: Understand the will of the Lord (v. 17). The word, “therefore” is a clue this is a second idea supporting the command to “Look . . . how you walk.”
- Supporting Point #3: Continue to be filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 18-21). The conjunction, “and,” tips us off that this is a third idea that supports the command to “look . . . how you walk.” How do we keep being filled with the Holy Spirit?
- Sub-supporting Point #1: By spiritual conversation (v. 19a).
- Sub-supporting Point #2: By spiritual songs (v. 19b).
- Sub-supporting Point #3: By continual thanksgiving (v. 20).
- Sub-supporting Point #4: By submitting to one another (v. 21).
Third, analyze the proper weight (emphasis) given to each sub-point (we did this in our comments above).
Fourth, search for any natural divisions in the paragraph (connecting words/phrases, particles, conjunctions, etc.). We noted the conjunctions, “therefore” (v. 17) and “and” (v. 18) above. Also, notice the four consecutive participles: “addressing,” “singing,” “giving,” “submitting.” Those participles, which come on the heels of the imperative, “be filled,” flow from that imperative.
Finally, re-assemble it. From this syntactical breakdown, we find the Apostle Paul’s intent as outlined below:
Main Point: How To Live Wisely
- Make The Most Of Your Time (v. 16)
- Understand The Will Of The Lord (v. 17)
- Continue To Be Filled With The Holy Spirit (v. 18-21)
- By Spiritual Conversation (v. 19a)
- By Spiritual Songs (v. 19b)
- By Continual Thanksgiving (v. 20)
- By Submitting To One Another (v. 21)
A Final Thought
“This is overkill,” you say, “It’s too technical.” It is technical, I admit. But it must be important because God moved the Apostle Paul to perform a syntactical analysis of an OT passage in Galatians 3. The Apostle showed, syntactically, how to interpret the word, “offspring”—even noting it is singular, not plural (see Gal 3:15-16). If God felt it important enough (1) to carefully craft the OT syntactical constructions and then (2) to call upon Paul to highlight them centuries later . . . shouldn’t syntax be important to us, too?
That’s not to say it isn’t tedious work. It is. Yet, it is critically important work because often the author’s single meaning is found in the syntactical construction. Here’s how important it is: At least in the case of the Jews in Galatia, their syntactical laziness blinded many of them from seeing their Messiah as the “Offspring” mentioned in their own OT scriptures.
Does God care about syntax? Indeed, He does.