24 February 2011

Marking in Your Bible

Dear Lissy,
One of the joys of your young heart is highlighting the verses in your Bible that you've memorized.  I also let you underline the verse numbers in pencil that you've read.  Right now, that's all I let you write into your Bible.

My Bible from Jr. High and High School is filled with sermon notes and large passages of underlined text.  My college Bible from when I first started inductive study is so colorful and annotated I can't read many of the passages.  I've since learned to print out a "working copy" of the book or passage I'm studying to mark up while studying and then transfer just the highlights to my Bible.

You love to look through my Bible and ask me about all the little notes, circles and underlines you see.  As you grow older and learn to study the Word faithfully, I'll show you how to mark enough in your Bible to help you remember what you've learned without making the text unreadable.

I'm attaching a workshop that I taught on Bible Marking a very long time ago.  I hope I'll be able to teach you this one-on-one in your teens, but I want you to have something to refer to as well.  You can tell how nervous I was since I wrote out my ideas word-for-word!

Love you scrunches and bunches,

P.S. 5/19/14:  I've put up a whole tutorial series on how to mark your Bible.    Start here

Don't miss our selection of favorite Bible Marking Tools in the Dear Lissy Shop 

Bible Marking Workshop

Annotating a Bible is an intensely personal project.  Some people choose to underline or highlight verses that they particularly like, or that have had an impact on their lives.  Others choose to take copious notes in their Bible, afraid of losing valuable teaching.  Many write things the Holy Spirit lays on their hearts as they read a particular verse or text.  For some, they seek to have information at their fingertips for counseling, personal work, and preaching.   A few serious students of the word may read through a book, or even the entire Bible searching for one particular theme, marking and annotating only that one idea on their journey.

My personal feeling is that I want six main things marked in my Bible(s)
1. Definitions/translations of words that give additional meaning to the text.
2. Markings & notes that indicate the structure and relationships within the text.
3. References/notes that link this passage to others in the Word.
4. Chains of references for witnessing and counseling
5.   Brief (!) explanations of difficult/controversial passages.
6.   Memorials: a date and 2-3 words that bring to mind how the Lord used that verse in my life in a special way.
I am adamant that my Bible still be readable – I tend to make fewer marks rather than more.  I generally journal my thoughts and feelings as I read a text elsewhere.  I also tend to file sermon and class notes, choosing to mark items from the sermon that fit the above criteria.  Following is the system I have used for about a decade after years of marking up Bibles haphazardly.

1.  Determine why you are marking.  This may seem a trifle obvious, but the fact is if you don’t know why you’re marking, you’ll probably end up marking far too much.  There are three main reasons for marking, and you may, like me, choose to focus on primarily one purpose per Bible.
Marking to illuminate the text for future use.
Marking to assist in personal work with another (i.e. witnessing, counseling, debating)
Marking to assist in teaching or preaching.

Marking to illuminate the text for future use.
The goal of most marking should be to cast light on the text so that items that have been studied, defined, and brought to light through sermons or personal study can be remembered.  If too much is marked, nothing stands out.   I will also give hints on marking verses that have deep personal meaning without highlighting and underlining willy-nilly.

Marking to assist in personal work with another person.
My large (and expensive) study Bible rarely leaves my home.  I chose instead to purchase a plain, well made Bible for taking to church and carrying with me in a tote or briefcase.  I have marked the smaller, plain Bible to assist in personal work as follows:
salvation:  children, unchurched, Catholics, Jews, Latter Day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
comfort and counsel:   These include helps in areas such as depression/loneliness, marriage & motherhood, and financial/time management.
conflicts & convictions such as eternal security, election, divorce, and so forth

Marking to assist in preaching and teaching.
Many men ordained of God to the ministry choose to keep sermon outlines, quotes, and even brief illustrations in their Bibles so they are ready to minister at a moment’s notice.  For the vast majority of Christians, this isn’t an issue.  Yes, it’s tempting to write the notes from a great sermon in your Bible, but think twice before you do.  Very often if you write the sermon down in a notebook as you listen, you will be able to use standard marking notations to place the information in your Bible without filling every available margin.    Those who wish to keep copious notes with the relevant text should strongly consider a wide margin or interleaved Bible.

2.  Determine the tools you’ll use for marking, and remain consistent.
A clear, flexible 6" ruler for underlining and marking lines.
A pencil/pen that doesn’t bleed through for notes and marking.  HB rather than 2B pencils work well.
Crayola colored pencils in 8-10 colors. (Pentel makes a large pencil that has several different colored leads in a single pencil.  This is quite expensive, and I don’t usually mark more than one color at a time.  I owned one in college and found it convenient because of space limitations, but find the Crayola pencils much easier on my limited budget.)
A case for the above items.  I keep my Bible and all of my marking materials together so I’m never tempted to grab something different “just for this once”.

3.  Learn a simple system of annotating marks, and use them judiciously.
I ask myself the simple question: “What is the least I can mark and still have the information I need?”  The idea is, as much as possible, to keep the simplicity and integrity of the text for future use.  Let’s start with the use of a plain pen or pencil.  I prefer a blue pen since it shows up but doesn’t stick out.
1.  Mark a word or phrase that brings out the meaning of the verse or passage instead of underlining an entire verse or passage.  Jot a brief definition of the word if necessary.
2.  If you wish to mark an entire verse, box it, rather than underlining.  This will allow you to highlight particular words in the future.  Dad simply circles the verse number.
3.  If you wish to mark a passage, draw a vertical line beside it in the margin.  Again, this will allow you further markings in the future.
4.  If there’s a passage you refer to frequently, color a ½” long and 1/8" wide dark bar right at the edge of the page.  It is very easy to see, even with the Bible shut.
5.  Don’t rewrite information.
•  If a pertinent cross reference is already printed in the reference column, simply underline or circle it rather than re-writing the reference in the margin.
•  If you are pulling a numbered list or progression out of the passage, number in the text or margin rather than re-writing it.
•  If you are placing sermon/class notes into your Bible, write as few words as possible, using cross references and circling important words within the text as much as possible.
6.  Very often a verse is precious because of present circumstances.  Instead of simply underlining a verse, make a note of the date and a one or two word memory jogger in the margin.  Rather than being distracted by underlining, when you come across that verse again you will instantly be reminded of the occasion when the Spirit made it precious to your heart.

Using Color
I strongly advocate a very limited use of color.   It is difficult to read a Bible that is heavily colored or marked.  There are, however, times when a colored pencil can do far more than a simple pen/pencil.
1. Don’t use a single color through the entire Bible.  Instead, if you are following a theme through the entire word of God, draw a simple symbol either beside the verse, or at the top of the page after circling the verse number in the matching color.   When I am following a Bible-wide theme I typically pick a colored pen and use it during the entire study.  Since I normally use blue for annotation, I’ll pick black or red for thematic work.   Bible-wide themes lend themselves very well to simple symbols – save the color coding for book studies.
Example: I want to do a study on music as worship, a theme that spans the entire word of God.  I can choose a color (purple) and underline every verse on music as worship that I read.  But what if that verse becomes important in a study I’m doing on another topic at a later date?  I’ve already marked it as music - worship.  Instead, either draw a small treble clef beside the verse, or even better, at the top corner of the page.  Then circle the appropriate verse number in the same color.  When I want to look it up quickly again, I simply thumb through my Bible for purple treble clefs.  If it later comes into a study on depression, I can draw my little black cloud in the margin and circle the verse number in black, too.
2. Colored pencil or drylighters are best used within a book.  For example, it can be very powerful to underline each occurrence of the word “joy” in Phillipians, or “exceedingly” in Jonah, or “altars” in Genesis.  Again, don’t underline the whole verse, just the one word or phrase you’re trying to remember as a theme in the book.  Be sure to write a small note beside the book title to remind you of your marking system.  In this way, the same color could be used for joy and altars, even though the topic is entirely different.  This especially comes into play in a book like Proverbs that addresses a whole host of practical topics.  If you’ve designated colors for Bible-wide themes, you’ll be hard pressed to come up with little symbols for all the separate topics in book studies.
3.  Highlight verses you've memorized by very lightly shading them.

Writing Notes Into Your Bible
Occasionally I want to place notes from my personal study and meditation or a sermon into my Bible because they so illuminate the passage I don’t want to forget them the next time I encounter the passage.  I also don’t want to have so much writing I get distracted by my notes.  There are a couple of solutions available...
1.  It’s nice to have notes for difficult and controversial passages directly in the text.  Often these are best illuminated by cross-references, but don’t be afraid to write notes.  I prefer to write in an orator font - all capitals with larger capital letters for true capitals.  I find it neater and easier to write in a straight line!  If a book from my library deals with a particular passage, I’ll jot down the title and page (Holiest of All, 17)
2.  I never, ever take notes directly from a sermon into my Bible.  Instead, I write on a piece of paper, and then carefully condense the information into as few words as possible.  For expositional sermons, I need very little room.  For topical sermons, I often choose to simply create a chain of references, circling important words or phrases.
3.  I rarely forget a passage that I have meditated on deeply.  A few words or even just circling the word that caught my heart will usually bring it back without fail.  An exception to this is when I am referencing to several other passages, in which case I write in cross-references.
4.  Occasionally in passages that are heavily taught I will run out of room around a group of verses.  If there isn’t a logical place to write additional notes, I use onion skin paper and a repositionable glue stick to make a very thin “post it” note.  I try to make this note as small as possible, often by typing it and running the thinner paper through the printer.  This same method can be used for items like diagrams or charts that you wish to have the next time you study the passage.
5.  If you faithfully study and meditate on the Word, you will amass a huge store of “thoughts” and personal applications.  Consider a journal or other way to record these if they don’t cast light on the passage and are simply a record of your thoughts and feelings at the time.  Use these journals to lift your heart during dry or dark times.
6.  Drop class, sermon, or seminar notes into file folders.  These are easy to store, and can be given a coding system that allows you to reference the set of notes in your Bible without placing extensive notes into the text.  I code my note sets by the first letter of the book or topic and the date.  Romans class notes from college become R92 for example.  If I want to refer to a particular page in that set of notes, I simply use a dash (R92-17)

Marking Grammatical structure
There are many Bible study books that advocate marking grammatical devices by drawing arrows and lines through and around the text.  I did this extensively in my college Bible, and find there are passages I can hardly read!  Instead, consider the following ideas.
1.  Have a simple symbol for  relationships of ideas.  For example, if you want to bring out cause and effect, have a C→E in the margin rather than arrows interrupting the text.  If you are studying the forms of Hebrew Poetry, create a simple code to stand for the various devices. AP indicates Antithetic parallelism and so on.
2.  If you are showing a progression, circle/underline the affected words, and jot the reference of the next portion of the progression beside the verse rather than making large lines through the text.  Within a verse, simply circle the affected words and leave out the arrows.

Use Blank Pages in Your Bible to Their Best Advantage
Finally, make use of the flyleaves and endpapers of your Bible in an organized fashion.  In the Bible I use for personal work, I divided up the pages and recorded the references I had underlined for each subject with a one or two word explanation.  I can add new verses as I come across them without any trouble.

In my study Bible, I have one page set aside as a legend for symbols I use Bible-wide as well as the first verse in the topic.  I have another page that keeps a list of verses that I can use when I am battling a particular sin, or during times of trial.  Another page keeps a list of verses for which I have learned tunes that can be sung.  If I reference a book in my Bible, the complete info for that book is recorded in the back of my Bible.

I have chosen the Life Application Bible for the following reasons:
1.  The paper is heavy enough to prevent show-through with the pens I use.
2.  There is an enormous amount of space around each individual verse as well as in the margins.  Because they chose to use a single column format, I actually have an easier time fitting my notations where I want them than I did in a Wide Margin Bible.  This is especially nice where I am trying to fit in a definition right with the word.
3.  Maps and study helps are in the text - I save a great deal of notation just not having to refer to helps in other places.
4.  The concordance, positioned next to the binding on both right and left hand pages,  actually lines up with the verse it’s referencing, so if I underline a cross reference, it’s right beside the verse.
5.  A fairly large bottom margin of notes(which I rarely reference) at the bottom of each page gives me a place to put home made “post-it” style notes from onion skin paper without obscuring the text.  This allows me to place lengthy notes and charts right where I’ll use them.

Mom's note:  The Life Application Bible is no longer available in verse-by-verse format.   I now recommend the Trinitarian Bible Society's Windsor Text Bible.  

However, seriously consider a Wide Margin Bible if you regularly...
1.  Write class or sermon outlines into your Bible.
2.  Journal in your Bible
3.  Are in a ministry where you receive regular in-depth expositional preaching which essentially allows you to create your own study Bible with very little work.
4.  Like to include a great deal of cross-referencing to sources other than the Bible.

The key to marking a Bible you wish to use for many years is to keep it simple and clean.  You need to be able to instantly recall information that will give better understanding, but you shouldn’t have to read through copious markings and colorings.  Ideally, if you have purchased a good quality Bible, and take reasonable care, a Bible should last for 25 years.  Rebinding can extend the life much further if necessary.  When you obtain a new copy of the Bible, take a year to read through the Word, transferring any pertinent notes and markings as you go.

Taking the time to make a few markings will "sharpen your sword" as well as creating a record of your Christian walk.  You'll begin to find that many of the passages you've taken the time to clarify through study will aid you greatly as you simply read through larger portions.  I'm also amazed at how often a verse my Pastor preaches on ties into and further illuminates a passage I'm already studying and meditating on personally.


  1. Great notes, beautiful blog. Thanks for sharing this with us

  2. Thanks for sharing your bible highlighting notes with us. I usually have a color code when I highlight (one color for verses relating to marriage, one for being a mother, etc).
    Visiting today from GMG. New England is one of my favorite places. I am from Long Island :)

  3. I truly enjoyed your lesson on Bible marking notes etc. I only wish I could take a class under you. I also use a Life Application (KJV) Bible. I only have my phone to read your info is it possible to get a paper copy so I don't have to write out you letter? You are great. Thanks J

  4. Thank you, this was helpful.

  5. Wow, you don't muck around!
    You've been a great help, thanks!

  6. thank you.this has been the most practical advice on this subject i have ever read. thank you again sister :)

  7. Love this!!! I plan to use many aspects of this from my personal Bible study and sermon notes . I’m confused as to when I use pencil or micron when underlining or circling words.

    1. I use a 2H pencil to underline or circle words within the verse. It's light enough it doesn't affect readability, but remains visible and won't rub off.