Here is a handout I used for a lesson I taught sometime ago on five keys I use to help me understand the scriptures. There are many more I could have added, of course, but figured these were some of the most important.
Key 1: Be humble and keep an open mind.
Our understanding of the scriptures will change and increase in proportion to our humility and open-mindedness. It’s good to take a good hard look with a critical eye and mind each time we read a passage of scripture and never assume that we understand it perfectly already.
Key 2: “Dig up the root and ascertain what it was that drew out the saying.”
“I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I inquire, what was the question which drew out the answer, or caused Jesus to utter the parable? [. . .] To ascertain its meaning, we must dig up the root and ascertain what it was that drew the saying out of Jesus.
“While Jesus was teaching the people, all the publicans and sinners drew near to hear Him; ‘and the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying: This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.’ This is the keyword which unlocks the parable of the prodigal son. It was given to answer the murmurings and questions of the Sadducees and Pharisees, who were querying, finding fault, and saying, ‘How is it that this man as great as He pretends to be, eats with publicans and sinners?’ Jesus was not put to it so, but He could have found something to illustrate His subject, if He had designed if for nation or nations; but He did not. It was for men in an individual capacity; and all straining on this point is a bubble. ‘This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.’
“And he spake this parable unto them— ‘What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them doth not leave the ninety-and-nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety-and-nine just persons which need no repentance.’ The hundred sheep represent one hundred Sadducees and Pharisees, as though Jesus had said, ‘If you Sadducees and Pharisees are in the sheepfold, I have no mission for you; I am sent to look up sheep that are lost; and when I have found them, I will back them up and make joy in heaven.’ This represents hunting after a few individuals, or one poor publican, which the Pharisees and Sadducees despised.
“He also gave them the parable of the woman and her ten pieces of silver, and how she lost one, and searching diligently, found it again, which gave more joy among the friends and neighbors than the nine which were not lost; like I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety-and-nine just persons that are so righteous; they will be damned anyhow; you cannot save them. (Jan. 29, 1843.)” (Joseph Smith in Smith, Joseph Fielding, Ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 276-278).
Key 3: Who is addressed in the particular passage of scripture?
“Christ says no man knoweth the day or the hour when the Son of Man cometh (Matt. 24:36). . . . Did Christ speak this as a general principle throughout all generations? Oh no; he spoke in the present tense. No man that was then living upon the footstool of God knew the day or the hour, but he did not say that there was no man throughout all generations that should not know the day or the hour. No, for this would be in flat contradiction with other scripture for the prophet says that God will do nothing but what he will reveal unto his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7). Consequently, if it is not made known to the Prophets it will not come to pass. Again we find Paul in 1st Thessalonians 5th Chapter expressly points out the characters who shall not know the day nor the hour when the Son of Man cometh. For, says he, it will come upon them as the thief or unawares. Who are they? They are the children of darkness or night. But to the Saints he says “ye are not of the night nor of darkness that that day should come upon you unawares” (Joseph Smith in Ehat, Andrew F. and Cook, Lyndon W., eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 180=181).
Key 4: Correctly understand words.
What does “conversation” mean in King James English? (See Psalm 37:14; 50:23; Galatians 1:13; 1 Peter 3:16; 2 Peter 3:11).
What does “will/would” mean in King James English? (See 1 Timothy 2:4,8; John 7:17; Alma 33:16-17,23)
What does “by and by” mean in King James English? (See Bible Dictionary, p. 627)
What do the words “eternal,” “everlasting,” and “endless” mean? (See D&C 19:6-12; Moses 1:3) How does this clarify the meaning of “eternal life,” “the greatest of all the gifts of God?” Are the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah still burning (See Jude 1:7)?
Key 5: look for similar words/phrases in other passages.
What does “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23) mean? (See Alma 24:10-11, 15)
What is the “word of Christ”(2 Nephi 31:20) that we are to feast upon? (See 2 Nephi 32:2-3,5)
Why does Ether 12:27 speak of “their weakness” and not “their weaknesses?” (See Ether 3:2; 12:37; Jacob 4:7; D&C 62:5)