After (1) identifying the best reading and translation, (2) recognizing background and context, and (3) identifying the structural keys of the book, we need to (4) identify the grammatical and syntactical keys in the passage.
First, we need to be able to distinguish between grammar and syntax, because they are not the same. Grammar refers to the rules of how words relate to one another, and syntax, to the actual usage. In other words, grammar is the theory and syntax is the practice. Grammar is the set of rules Paul would have understood and followed when he wrote his epistles, and syntax is the end product.
Also, we need to understand the importance of studying the relationships of words before studying the words themselves. The fifth step for Bible exegesis is to identify lexical keys, yet we consider grammar and syntax first. Why? Very simply because the context in which a word is used – including its relationship to other words – is vitally important to understanding the intended meaning of the particular word chosen. Without first understanding the structures used for connecting the words, we cannot correctly ascertain the intended meaning of the individual word.
Further, we need to identify the grammatical and syntactical keys themselves. We can start by identifying historical/cultural references, figurative language, rhetorical devices, quotations, key sentence structure, clauses, etc.
Consider, for example, that Revelation 12 is a narrative describing some important signs. What is sometimes understood to be figurative language in this context is actually not figurative at all, but rather is a literal description of a figure, i.e., a sign.
Next, we should note rhetorical devices employed in the text. Dialogical method is used by Paul in Romans 9:14, 19, 22, 30, and 32. Question and answer adds to the clarity of the passage and demonstrates the use of logical reasoning in Paul’s argument, but also indicates the limitations of human logic (9:19-20). Parenesis (encouragement) is found in Romans 12:1-15:13; 1 Thessalonians, etc. Other devices include judicial, deliberative, epideictic (demonstrative, persuasive), etc. Jesus uses figurative language (metaphor) in John 11:11 in describing Lazarus’ death. The same metaphor is also applied in Psalm 17:15 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14.
Number of persons is an important key to be aware of. Whether a verb is pertaining to the first, second, or third person, can sometimes make a tremendous difference in a passage. Acts 2:38 includes an important imperative regarding repentance and baptism that seems, in the English translation, to indicate that repentance and baptism are both necessary for forgiveness. However, the imperative repent is second person plural while be baptized is third person singular (let him or her – each one – be baptized), and the pronoun (your sins) is also second person. This grammatical key, not seen clearly in the English, is critical to understanding the verse.
Word order is important – especially in Hebrew and Greek. Unlike English, in which word order is often dictated by the parts of speech chosen, in Hebrew and Greek there is much more freedom with regard to word order, so it is significant that a Biblical writer places one word before another. In the creation account of Genesis 1 each day is described as consisting of evening and morning. The order (evening first) is significant. How does this relate to Jewish culture? How impactful is this syntactical repetition in defining the scope of an individual day (i.e., 24 hours)? Does this phrasing lend credence to a literal six-day creation? How can there be evening and morning before the sun is created?
Progress in the text is important. Notice the phrasing of Psalm 1:1. There is a progression from action to inaction (walk, stand, sit). How is this significant in describing the blessed man?
Word endings are important. What is the rock in Matthew 16:18? What is the grammatical significance of the distinction between the two word endings: petros is a piece of rock or a stone, petra is a large rock or boulder. Note correlation of 1 Peter. 2:8, Romans 9:33, and 1 Corinthians 10:4.
After recognizing grammatical and syntactical keys in the passage, it is helpful to diagram each sentence in the original language in order to visually recognize distinctions and their significance. Finally, briefly summarize the importance of grammatical and syntactical keys in the passage. This helps in synthesizing the data, and prepares the exegete for the next step.
For a more thorough handling of grammatical and syntactical considerations, a text devoted to grammar and syntax is helpful (like Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, and Waltke’s and Connor’s An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax). While ordinarily in the first seven steps of the exegetical process I discourage the use of external sources (in order for the exegete to look at the passage as objectively as possible), at this stage a good grammar or intro to syntax is fairly necessary, unless one has developed a high level of expertise in the languages. For most, these tools will provide aid without adding so much peripheral information that objectivity is hindered.
Next up: (5) identify lexical keys.