How to Take Notes in Your Bible
Have you ever considered taking notes in your Bible?
For some, that idea of writing in a Bible seems unconscionably sacrilegious. If that’s you, let me encourage you to recognize that it is God’s Word, not man’s paper and ink, that is to be revered. The manufacturing process used to produce your physical copy has not endowed it with any special graces. Certainly, if you’ve inherited a multi-generational family Bible, I agree that it would be wise to preserve it as best you can, and I understand why you wouldn’t write in it. In that case, purchasing a new Bible in order to take notes would be a good decision.
On the other hand, you may want to take notes—and perhaps have even done so from time to time—but you don’t quite know what to write. Bad examples of note-taking abound. Some underline phrases in their Bible and write, “So good!” next to it. And while true, such a note does not contribute to understanding the text. In fact, years later, the one who wrote it may not even remember how or why the particular passage struck his or her fancy in the first place (and aren’t all passages of Scripture “so good?”).
Others who take notes go the opposite route: underlining every single line in an entire chapter. And while I certainly appreciate and understand that zeal, especially for passages like Ephesians 1 or Romans 9 that reveal some of the grandest metaphysical realities known to man, that kind of mentality suffers from similar problems. Underlining everything provides no additional insight.
Lastly, there are some who have concocted an exquisite note-taking system. Relying upon literally dozens of colored pencils, designs, and symbols, some systems I’ve seen essentially require something like a three-page rubric to decipher. Those who find themselves in this category may have so over-coded their note-taking system that it, too, has been rendered unhelpful.
In response to these pitfalls, the following note-taking system I developed many years ago may serve as a blessing to you. It certainly continues to serve me well.
Categories of Notes
This method relies upon only four categories, or types, of notes: outlining, commenting, defining, and linking. Each of these types is explained below, along with an example and illustration of the type of note as it would be used for Psalm 46 (these examples are based on the exposition of Psalm 46 found here).
Outlining is the process of taking a set of verses—perhaps a few verses within a chapter, an entire chapter, or even multiple chapters—determining its main point or theme, and dividing it into supporting sub-sections. This type of note allows you to summarize an entire text, understanding how it operates as a whole and how each individual sub-section contributes to one overall theme. For that reason, this is the most fundamental note to use in your Bible.
With sub-sections of back-to-back passages that are components of one central theme, the way to outline is to draw a large black bracket (“[“) around the entire passage, and then draw sub-dividing lines (“—”) between each sub-section of verses. (When finished, the outline should look like a ladder that’s missing the right side.) Then, on the top line of the bracket, you write out the central theme or main idea of the outline. Finally, on the sides of each bracketed subset of passages, you write out the sub-point that summarizes that specific sub-section of verses and helps explain the main idea.
When studying the Old Testament, a majority of outlines will span an entire chapter, and perhaps even multiple chapters. (Outlines of the Old Testament for you to copy directly into your Bible can be found here.) On the other hand, when studying the New Testament, outlines will rarely span more than a chapter. Outlining is well-suited to capture the common three-point sermon (or of course any number of points, within reason) that many expositors use when preaching through a text. Often, an expositor will either outright announce, or subtly convey, his outline of the passage, giving you the major theme as well as how the verses divide up into sub-points.
For example, Psalm 46 describes the safety and strength that God provides for His people; thus the theme for the passage could be stated as “Our Mighty Fortress.” Based on the keyword “Selah,” the passage divides neatly into three sub-sections: verses 1-3, 4-7, and 8-11. In verses 1-3, the Psalmist describes God’s protection. In verse 4-7, the Psalmist describes God’s power. And in verses 8-11, the Psalmist describes God’s preeminence. Each of these sections explains how or why it is that God is “Our Mighty Fortress” (the theme of the psalm). The first section explains that God’s protection has no limit, the second section explains that God’s power has no equal, and the third section explains that God’s preeminence has no end. Notice that each individual sub-section contributes to answering the question, “How is God our mighty fortress?”
When done outlining, your note would look like this:
Note: because outlining is intended to capture the “big picture” of a passage and then break it down graphically into sub-sections, this type of note is intended to span many verses. Although an entire outline may be taken of perhaps only two or three verses, a case like that should be the exception rather than the rule. If you often find yourself outlining such small portions in a majority of your study of Scripture, it may be that you are “atomizing” the text—reducing it down to such a small section that you’ve missed the bigger picture of the surrounding context. In that case, your three-verse outline is probably better understood to be one bracketed sub-section of a much larger outline.
Commenting is the process of determining the correct interpretation of a verse or set of verses and writing a note of explanation or application. This means, of course, that this is another fundamental type of note for Bible study. Rather than simply writing “This is great!” or “Wow!” next to a passage, a comment is intended to explain or expound upon the meaning of a verse that may not be readily apparent. At times, passages require extensive cross-referencing, consulting commentaries, and listening to expositional sermons in order to understand the meaning. After going to great lengths to determine a passage’s meaning, it would be unfortunate for you to return to it in a matter of weeks or months only to scratch your head as you try to recall the fruit of your labor. A basic comment is intended to archive your effort so that any time you return to the passage, you can quickly recall the correct interpretation.
The way to comment is to underline the portion of the text that you intend to explain, and then write your explanation to the side of the text in the margin. If your comment is not directly next to the text it addresses, you can draw an arrow from your comment to the text that is underlined.
For example, in Psalm 46:3, the Psalmist explains that God’s people do not need to fear even if the waters were roaring and the mountains were quaking—essentially, that even if the entire world were to collapse. The point of the argument is that if God’s people are safe amidst the absolute worst that this world can offer (cataclysmic destruction), then logically, God’s people are safe amidst anything this world can offer. This kind of logical argument is known in Latin as a fortiori, in which a stronger situation necessarily implies a weaker situation as well.
When done commenting, your note would look like this:
Note: Since there may be times in which you need to add comments for back-to-back verses or parts of a verse, commenting uses two colors—blue and red. These two colors contrast well with each other, making it so that if you have to write two comments near each other in your Bible’s margin, you can distinguish them from one another by color. Thus, as you write notes, alternating between the two colors will allow you to quickly see which notes apply to which verses.
Defining is the process of providing the definition of a word or phrase that is important for clarifying the meaning of a passage. At times, the only obstacle standing between the student of Scripture and a passage’s meaning is the definition of a key word. It could be that you understand the general point of the verse, but a particular phrase needs to be more accurately defined (ultimately according to its Hebrew or Greek lexical meaning) either to avoid misinterpreting the passage or to provide a fuller understanding of the passage.
To define, draw a green box around the word or phrase that needs to be defined, and then draw a line from the bottom edge of the box to your definition note in the margin. Think of this as a “lasso,” in which you rope a word and pull it out to the margins in order to define its meaning. The major difference between “commenting” and “defining” is that a comment is a more general note that may encompass anything from the specifics of a passage to its application in life, whereas a definition is the precise meaning of an exact word or phrase in the text.
For example, the superscription of Psalm 46 contains the phrase “set to Alamoth.” At first glance, its obvious that this phrase is some type of musical guide, thus the general purpose of the phrase is straightforward. But to really get a grasp on what it is stating, you would need to define “Alamoth.” A study of this Hebrew word reveals that it is from the word “almah” which means “maiden” or “virgin” (the same Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 to speak of the virgin birth of Christ, for example). Thus, now you know that this Psalm was intended to be set to a high-pitched voice or instrument (as a young woman would have). While this fact may initially seem inconsequential, one redemptive implication of this phrase is to recognize that God has graciously led His people in corporate worship, even providing particular direction for music and singing, rather than leaving them to wonder how to praise Him. The Lord Himself is the worship leader for His people, and we ought to worship Him according to the standards set forth in His Word.
When done defining, your note would look like this:
Note: Be sure to define the word according to its original language, not according to the translated English word used in your particular Bible version. And after defining a word or phrase, you will almost always want to write an additional sentence or two explaining the reason the words needs a precise definition (i.e. the implications of the definition for understanding or applying the text).
Linking is the process of highlighting words or phrases from across several passages of Scripture that are related to each other. This could be a phrase that is repeated for literary effect, a reused key word that indicates an author’s progress in thought, or perhaps a set of words that bookend a section of Scripture. Whatever the case may be, a linking note allows you to graphically show how multiple words or phrases are connected across a passage.
To link words together, use an orange highlighter on the related words. Then draw an orange line from each of the words over to the margin, connect (“link”) the lines together, and add an accompanying note explaining how the words are related.
For example, Psalm 46:2 speaks hypothetically of earth-shaking circumstances when the mountains might “slip” into the sea, Psalm 46:5 speaks of the city of God (Jerusalem) not being “moved,” and Psalm 46:6 speaks proleptically (past tense of a future event that is certain to happen) of a time when the kingdoms of the world have “tottered.” In each of these verses, it is actually the same Hebrew word that is used for “slip,” “moved,” and “tottered.” Thus, the Psalmist reuses this word in order to make clear the contrast between the instability of nature and nations and the stability of God and His people. Such a contrast further instills in them (and consequently us!) the confidence that God is indeed a refuge for His people at all times and in all situations. This important connection is, unfortunately, not readily apparent based on the various English words used to translate from the Hebrew, but the link between them is important in recognizing what the Psalmist is trying to convey.
When done linking, your note would look like this:
Note: since a highlighter is used, care should be taken in selecting what text to highlight. Although a different way of identifying the “linked” words (such as circling or underlying them) can be used, a highlighter allows you to quickly and easily identify related portions of the text, particularly in contrast with other notes you may have in the margins.
Putting It All Together
After studying through Psalm 46, your text might look something like this:
As with anything that may be new to you, the aforementioned system may seem daunting at first. But recognize that explaining the system is more cumbersome than actually implementing it. With practice, these four simple categories of notes will become second-nature to you. Practice makes perfect (and, having said that, you may want to start by practicing on something other than your primary Bible!).
Not everything in your Bible needs a note. In general, “less is more” when it comes to taking notes. If you already have a firm grasp of a particular verse, there’s no need to add a comment to it. Excess notes only clutter your Bible and make it harder to quickly identify the difficult areas that actually have important notes written next to them. Address the portions of the text only as needed.
Although you can take notes in any textual layout, the best way to leverage these kinds of notes is by using a “verse format” Bible, in which each verse begins on a new line. Paragraph format Bibles certainly have their place, particularly for those prone to read single verses in isolation, but they do not allow for easy access to particular words and phrases within each verse that need to be addressed.
Although this may come across as burdensome and unnecessary, the benefits of taking notes in this manner are numerous. It forces you to read the text slowly and contemplatively. It forces you to think exegetically rather than emotionally. It helps you retain what you’ve learned not only by going through the motions of taking the notes, but also by the colors that stand out on the page (and certainly feel free to modify the color scheme as you see fit). Finally, it helps you teach others in the future, as you have already developed an outline and interpreted difficult passages. The work you put in now will serve you for a lifetime.
If you’ve ever wondered how to leave a legacy of faith for your family after you die, this is one very tangible way to do it. Once you’re gone, leaving your children and grandchildren with a Bible marked up by page after page of meaningful notes not only demonstrates your commitment to the Scriptures, but provides you with a way to disciple them past the grave. They will never have to say something like, “What would Dad have said about this passage?” or, “I wonder how this chapter impacted Grandma.” Your own commentary, written in your own hand, will stand as your witness.
As you consider incorporating this note-taking system into your own study habits, may God grant you the diligence “to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).