How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament:
 Step 5–Clause and Text Grammar

Series: How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament 

by Jason DeRouchie March 25, 2021

With step 5 of the interpretive process we move from “Text” to “Observation,” and we consider a series of issues related to how a passage is communicated. Our initial goal is to assess the makeup and relationship of words, phrases, clauses, and larger text units. In short, we need to study grammar.

According to His Own Heart He Sought a Man–Illustrating the Importance of Grammar

Why study grammar? Before answering this question, let me first illustrate the difference it can make. In 1993 I spent a semester studying in Israel. As I went, I prayed that God would make me “a man after his heart.” I was echoing 1 Samuel 13:14 where, speaking of Saul’s replacement, the prophet declared, “The LORD has sought for himself a man after his own heart” (NASB). What does this statement mean? For me, it was something like, “God, let my desires, thoughts, and hates be like yours.” Or it could have been, “Help me be a man who pursues after your heart.”

In English, the preposition “after” can mean “in pursuit of” as in, “the cop went after the robber.” I now recognize that the Hebrew preposition ke (כְּ, “like/according to”) that begins the phrase “after his heart” never functions this way. This means the construction “a man after God’s heart” can’t mean “a man who pursues God’s heart.” That cancels out one of the ways I may have interpreted this statement decades ago.

The next thing to recognize is that prepositional phrases are modifiers, characterizing either nouns (functioning adjectivally) or verbs (functioning adverbially). Most prepositional phrases in Hebrew are adverbial, but the traditional interpretation of 1 Samuel 13:14 treats the prepositional phrase “after/like/according to his heart” adjectivally. Let’s look at three possibilities for interpreting 1 Samuel 13:14. Hebrew reads right-to-left, and the following represents an English interlinear with word-for-word translation under the Hebrew.

First, if “after/like/according to his heart” is functioning adjectivally modifying the direct object “man,” and if “heart” refers to God’s character or loyalty, then the clause means that “YHWH has sought a man whose character or loyalty in some way corresponded to God’s character or loyalty.” This is the traditional reading, and a number of English translations make this view explicit: “The Lord, searching for a man who is pleasing to him in every way …” (BBE). “The LORD has sought out for himself a man who is loyal to him” (NETB). “The LORD has found a man loyal to him” (HCSB).[1] “The LORD will search for a man following the Lord’s own heart” (CEB). The figure below represents the word-order of the Hebrew.

Second, when reading “according to his heart” adjectivally, another possibility arises if “heart” refers not to God’s character but to his “desire” or “choice.” Here God’s elective purpose corresponds with or finds fulfillment in the “man.” The basic idea would be that “YHWH sought for himself a man who was in accord with his own choosing.” Some contemporary versions employ this reading: “GOD is out looking for your replacement right now. This time he’ll do the choosing” (MSG). “The LORD will search for a man of his own choosing” (CEB).

There is still a third way of reading the passage, and I think it is to be preferred––that the prepositional phrase “according to his heart” functions not adjectivally modifying “man” but adverbially modifying the main verb “he sought.” In this instance, YHWH’s “heart/will” serves as the standard or norm by which he sought a new king: “YHWH sought for himself according to his own will a man.” In this reading, the verse says nothing explicit about the man’s character or loyalty. Instead, it focuses on how YHWH’s act of discretion in selecting David grew out of a previous act of willing––he sought in accordance with a mental image he had in mind.

There are various evidences that support this third reading, all of which I have addressed elsewhere.[1] Now, if the adverbial reading is correct, even though the verse tells us nothing explicit about Saul’s replacement, it may still tell us something implicitly. If Yahweh, in part, selected David because his life aligned more closely to God’s mental ideal for kingship than Saul’s life did (i.e., Deuteronomy 17:14–20), then even with the adverbial reading, we may learn that David’s inner disposition truly did align more with God’s desires than Saul’s. Even more, his life pointed to his greater Son, Jesus, who perfectly matches God’s ideal image of kingship.[2]

My point in this illustration is to stress the value of knowing grammar. Considering how words, phrases, clauses, and larger texts relate can open up new avenues for questions and interpretation. And because our quest is to rightly understand God’s Word, such efforts count!

What is Grammar?

Grammar is what allows communication to make sense. We cease being coherent if we deviate too far from grammatical norms. To be specific, grammar is the whole system and structure that language uses for communicating effectively. It consists of four parts:

  • Orthography: the study of the alphabet and how its letters combine to form sounds;
  • Phonology: the study of a language’s system of sounds (phonemes);
  • Morphology: the study of the formation of words;
  • Syntax: how words combine to form phrases, clauses, sentences (clause grammar or micro-syntax), and even larger structures (text grammar or macro-syntax).

We now turn to clause grammar and text grammar.

Clause Grammar

As mentioned, clause grammar is how words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. The time we just spent considering 1 Samuel 13:14 was an exercise in clause grammar because we were seeking to construe meaning within a sentence. In that instance, we sought to determine if the prepositional phrase “according to his heart” modified a noun or a verb. In order to be able to practice clause grammar, it is helpful to know the following terms:

  • Clause: A grammatical construction made up of a subject and its predicate.
  • Phrase: A group of words that fills a single slot in a clause.
  • Subordinate clause: A clause that serves as a modifier and is embedded in a higher-level clause, as in “who is but a youth” in the sentence “David, who is but a youth, slew Goliath.
  • Main clause: One that is not grammatically subordinate to any other higher-level clause. “David, who is but a youth, slew Goliath.”
  • Sentence: A main clause with all its subordinate clauses.

Besides these terms, you need to know the right questions to ask. Some of the key ones include:

  • Could any clause or groups of clauses be understood differently if the grammar were construed differently?
  • Have I identified the antecedent referent of every pronoun and the subject of every verb?
  • Do I understand the function of every subordinate conjunction?
  • Do I know how every clause relates to its context?
  • Have I grasped the role of every discourse marker?

Text Grammar

Text grammar consists of the relationship between structures of thought that are equal to or larger than the clause level. The following diagram of Deuteronomy 7:1–4 is a model with an accompanying explanation of how to begin thinking about text grammar.

Each verse reference (i.e., 7:1[a]; 7:1b; 7:1c; 7:2[a]; etc.) is a clause, which means that it has a subject and a predicate (though in some instances the subject is implied from a previous clause). Below is an explanation of what the text grammar diagram above intends to communicate. Working through these notes will be cumbersome, but grasping what I am doing will serve your Bible study. You can learn more about how to lay out a biblical text as I have at

The time when Israel must destroy their enemies (7:1a–2b)

  • 7:1a begins an extended temporal (“when”) unit of four clauses that run from 1a–2b. The entirety of this “when” unit modifies 2c in that it provides the events that must occur for 2c to happen. I have signified that 1a–2b modifies 2c in this way by indenting the unit to the right. Another way to state this relationship is that 2c can grammatically stand on its own (i.e., an independent clause), but the unit in 1a–2b cannot stand on its own since it is dependent upon 2c. While only 1a includes the temporal “when,” the clauses in 2c–2b link to it with “and,” so that the whole of 1a–2b stands as a block of subordinate clauses that together modify 2c. Step one of this unit is that Yahweh will “bring” Israel into the promised land.
  • 7:1b modifies the word “land” in 1a by describing it. Since 1b develops 1a, I have indented it to the right of 1a. The “land” is the one that Israel will possess.
  • 7:1c begins with the conjunction “and.” This conjunction communicates that 1c links back to 1a and continues the subordination begun with the “when” clause. Because 1c connects with 1a, it goes directly beneath 1a. Seeing that 1c links to 1a informs us that the implied subject of 1c is the same subject from 1a (i.e., the LORD you God). When Yahweh brings Israel into the promised land, he will “clear away” the seven nations before them.
  • 7:2a begins with the conjunction “and.” This conjunction communicates that 2a links back to 1c and continues the subordinate unit begun in 1a. Because 2a connects with 1c, it goes directly beneath 1c. In this temporal unit, God’s actions move from “bringing” to “clearing away” and then culminate in his “delivering” all of them over to Israel.
  • 7:2b begins with the conjunction “and.” This conjunction communicates that 2b links back to 2a and continues the subordinate unit begun in 1a. Because 2b connects with 2a, it goes directly beneath 2a. Nevertheless, the switch from Yahweh as subject in 1ac and 2a to “you” as the subject of 2b identifies that 2b communicates the result of God’s previous actions. Once the Lord “brings,” “clears,” and “delivers,” the result will be that Israel will “defeat.” All these events set the temporal context for the main idea that follows.  

The call for Israel to destroy their enemies (7:2c)

  • 7:2c begins with “then,” and it is an independent clause. The “then” marks the primary act the people need to perform after Yahweh “brings … clears away … and delivers” and after Israel “defeats” (1a–2b). The whole temporal unit in 1a–2b modifies 2c. I have signified that 2c is an independent clause by placing it to the far left. Within the hierarchy of clauses, the fact that this clause is furthest left communicates that it is the main grammatical point of the passage. Operating as instruments of God’s wrath, Israel is called to “utterly destroy” the rebellious inhabitants of the Promised Land.

The implications of Israel’s destroying her enemies (7:2d–4c)

  • 7:2d does not begin with a conjunction (i.e., it’s asyndetic). In context, the lack of conjunction suggests that 2d and the other two clauses linked to it (2d,3a) are together providing some of the implications of God’s call to destroy the peoples in 2c. Because 2d explains 2c, I have indented it to the right. To utterly destroy Yahweh’s enemies means that Israel must “make no covenant with them.”
  • 7:2e begins with the conjunction “and,” which signifies that 2e is adding a further implication to 2d. Because 2e connects with 2d, it goes directly beneath 2d. Israel must also “show no favor to them.”
  • 7:3a begins with the conjunctive adverb “furthermore,” which identifies that 3a links back to 2e and adds to the explicatory unit begun in 2d. To destroy all the peoples (2c) implies that Israel must make no covenant with them (2d), show them favor (2e), or intermarry with them (3a). Because the “furthermore” at the head of 3s builds on 2e, it goes directly beneath 2e.
  • 7:3b does not begin with a conjunction, and as at 2d, the context suggests the lack of connection signals that 3b is now clarifying the previous statement in 3a not to intermarry. They must not allow their daughters to marry the sons of the ungodly. Because 3b modifies 3, I have indented it to the right.
  • 7:3c begins with the conjunction “nor,” thus adding one more element to the explication begun in 3b. To not intermarry will mean that the Israelites must neither give their daughters to the pagans’ sons (3b) nor take the pagans’ daughters for the Israelite sons (3c). Because 3c connects with 3b, it goes directly underneath 2e.
  • 7:4a begins with the conjunction “for.” This conjunction signifies that 4a logically supports 3c by providing its rational basis. Indeed, 4a begins a three-clause unit (4abc) that together gives the reason why God forbids inter-faith intermarriage. The first reason why the Israelites must not intermarry with these who do not fear Yahweh is because (“for”) these pagans would move the Israelites to turn from God to idols. Because 4a provides a logical ground for 3c, I have indented it to the right.
  • 7:4b begins with “then,” which connects back to 4a and thus continues to expand the reasons why the Israelites must not intermarry. Israel’s idolatry will “kindle” Yahweh’s just wrath. Since 4b connects back to 4a, the clause goes directly beneath 4 in the diagram. 
  • 7:4c begins with the conjunction “and.” This conjunction signifies that 4c links back to 4b, providing the final reason why Israel must not marry outside the covenant with Yahweh––it will ultimately result in God’s “destroying” them. Since 4c connects back to 4b, it continues to provide the rational basis for 3c, and it goes directly beneath 4b. 

Deuteronomy 7:1–4 is a weighty passage with a detailed argument that effectively motivates people to obey the Lord. God called Israel to remove obstacles to their pursuit of him. Failing to take idolatry seriously would certainly result in their ruin.

By practicing text grammar as I have done above, you can discern that the main point of Deuteronomy 7:1–4 is verse 2c: “then you shall utterly destroy them.” This is the passage’s main idea, and every other part of the passage supports or develops it in some way. 7:1–2b identifies the time when Israel must destroy their enemy neighbors, and 2d–4 explains some of the implications for what it means that they will destroy these objects of God’s just wrath. We have only just begun learning to trace an argument. I will devote all of next month’s post to this step in the interpretive process.


Note: This post adapts material from “Chapter 5: Clause and Text Grammar” in DeRouchie’s How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, 181–236.

[1] Jason S. DeRouchie, “The Heart of YHWH and His Chosen One in 1 Samuel 13:14,” BBR 24.4 (2013): 467–89.

[2] For my understanding of the Apostle Paul’s use of 1 Samuel 13:14 in Acts 13:22 see ibid., 488–89.

[1] The newer CSB returns to a more traditional rendering: “The LORD has found a man after his own heart.”

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