Exegetical Listening


As anyone who has ever been in an argument knows, communication is a two-way street.

I remember coming home from work one day and, as I began to talk to my wife, I could tell she was having a bad day. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. In an attempt to say that she looked both “frowny” and “grumpy,” I accidentally combined the words and said that she looked “frumpy.” Now, little did I know that “frumpy” was a word that refers to someone who dresses in a sloppy or unattractive manner. Needless to say that the conversation didn’t quite go as I had intended…

As this story illustrates, speaking clearly and listening intently are both needed to avoid getting into an argument or, in my case, accidentally insulting one’s spouse.

In verbal communication there is a speaker and there is a listener; both have to do their job for communication to take place. Sometimes a miscommunication occurs due to a failure of the speaker to clearly state what they mean. Sometimes a miscommunication occurs due to a failure of the listener to clearly discern what is being said.

The same is true when we listen to a sermon. Listening to a sermon is an extremely active, not passive, experience. It is the pastor’s job to be an exegetical speaker. But it is the job of the congregation to be exegetical listeners.

What does the word “exegetical” mean?

The words “exegesis” an “exegetical” refer to the process of taking meaning out of a text. The Greek word exegeomai means to “lead out.” Therefore, exegesis means that you lead meaning out of a text. Its opposite, eisegesis, means that you read meaning back onto the text. Eisegesis is the enemy of all biblical interpretation.

Therefore, an exegetical listener is someone who interprets the meaning of the text in its original historical and grammatical setting.

How can I be an exegetical listener?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you learn to exegete the text along with the pastor during a sermon.

  1. What questions do I have about the text? Does this sermon answer those questions?

  2. If I were to explain this text to someone else, how would I explain it?

  3. What is the original meaning of this text to its original audience?

  4. What are the main points of the text and what are the subpoints?

  5. What are the reasons being given for why the preacher’s interpretation is correct?

  6. Does anything in this sermon contradict anything elsewhere in the Bible?

  7. Is anything being added that is not in the text? Is there anything in the text that is not being addressed?

  8. Is there anything that sounds like speculation?

  9. What ideas in this text are different than my culture?

  10. In what ways do I need to think differently about God and what do I need to change in my own life to best obey what is in this text?

It is important to keep in mind that, in the same way the pastor is not a perfect speaker, you will not be a perfect listener. This means that if you think the pastor made a mistake in the sermon you’ll want to approach it with a spirit of humility, ready to learn, because he may have some reason (that you haven’t thought about) for why he approached the text in a particular way.

In a nutshell, being an exegetical listener means that you are not a passive recipient but one who “tests all things” (1 Thess 5:21) as you are listening for the original meaning of a biblical text.

The more you practice listening actively the better you will get at it. In fact, you are already practicing being an exegetical listener (or more precisely, and exegetical reader) as you are reading this article. You are trying to actively understand what I’m saying and make sure I’m being clear in my reasoning.

It’s just like that, only for a sermon instead of an article.

Zach Lee