Preacher, Don't Miss the Wood for the Trees
We’ve all heard the old saying, ‘don’t miss the wood for the trees.’ Unfortunately, like many idioms it is invariably misused and misunderstood. A particular issue with this idiom stems from the painful disintegration of careful communication. Because few of us write anything other than WhatsApp messages and Instagram captions, our ability to speak with any clarity is on the decline. But that’s a personal bugbear for another post. Another reason we readily butcher this idiom is that in English “wood” refers to both an area covered by trees and the material made from them. So missing the wood for the trees can be confusing. In brief, the idiom describes a failure to appreciate the whole because of a fixation on the details. And it’s very pertinent to how we read the Bible—that is, the relationship between exegesis and good fiction.
In his exceptional commentary on John’s Gospel, D. A. Carson riffs on this idiom and its application to highly technical Bible study, particularly grammatical and lexicographical exegesis. He writes, “In students who do not have a feel for literature, [exegesis] can have the unwitting effect of so focusing on the tree, indeed on the third knot of the fourth branch from the bottom of the sixth tree from the left, that the entire forest remains unseen, except perhaps as a vague and ominous challenge.” With usual precision, Carson identifies a common problem among the best trained expositors: attention to specifics rather than the whole. Missing the textual wood for the exegetical trees.
As the grateful benefactor of almost two decades of Bible handling training—from my ministry apprenticeship to preaching workshops—I’m aware of the danger Carson identifies. In my own Bible teaching I’ve made this error, countless times. It’s a pitfall for anyone with even a little theological training, let alone those of us with a Bachelor of Theology or more. If you can discuss Greek voice, Hebrew stems, or the hypostatic union, then at one time or another you’ve almost certainly kept your hearers from seeing the wood because you got hung up on a tree or two.
Now, please don’t hear me downplaying the need for careful handling of the biblical text. It also isn’t my purpose to denigrate theological training, at the level of both seminary and in the local church—it wasn’t so long ago that the pitchforks came out after I argued that scoring 10 out of 10 for your exegesis counts for nothing if your preparation is prayerless. This, of course, doesn’t excuse settling for 2 out of 10, pointing to the prayer grooves in your carpet after communing with God in the third heaven. It’s both/and. Working hard at exegesis and praying that God will work. Similarly, seeing the whole (or wood) is inseparable from the details (the trees). Your ability to comprehend and faithfully convey the sense of a text rests on your attention to the specifics—to exegesis.
In fact, we could speak about reading on two levels; and allowing for an interplay between them. I’m referring to the parts and the whole, the proverbial trees and the wood. Exegesis involves not only identifying a grammatical or lexicographic detail, but integrating it into the larger unit. Furthermore, familiarity with the larger unit should go some way towards how you read the details. That Hebrew wordplay is embedded in a textual corpus. That syntactical peculiarity still belongs within its surrounds. This kind of two-way reading is foundational to good exegesis. The technically trained must always be alert to the possibility of growing shortsighted, from standing too close. That doesn’t mean “the third knot of the fourth branch from the bottom of the sixth tree from the left” doesn’t matter. However, it’s only significant as the small part it plays in creating a breathtaking forest.
Returning then to quote from D. A. Carson, and something I only alluded to in my introduction: how can we guard against missing the wood for the trees in our exegesis? What can we do to ensure that while we prioritise the exegetical parts of the text we keep the whole in view? Carson offers one suggestion, which stands inconspicuously at the start of the quote. It is that we develop “a feel for literature.” Put another way, Carson is identifying the need for preachers to become better readers. Better readers in general; not just superior students of the Bible. In fact, as he suggests, developing a feel for literature will aid in Bible study. It is, after all, a text—packed with stories. So, preacher, don’t miss the wood for the trees. Tolle lege.