Last time I wrote I listed some of the basic tools for successful Bible study. Now I want to talk about something rather more intangible but equally indispensable: the right condition of soul. Tools are useless without the necessary skill to use them effectively. The Bible, you see, is like any other book in that it needs to be read from beginning to end (and how few believers actually do that!), but it is also like no other book in that it requires a submissiveness of spirit if we want to unlock its riches. Come to the Scriptures with a critical attitude and it will remain a closed volume. Come with a reverential recognition that this is the very voice of God and we shall find it having an impact upon our lives.
Psalm 119 is the greatest poem ever written about the value of Gods Word. Whoever wrote it (and it remains as tantalisingly but resolutely anonymous as the letter to the Hebrews), he was a man overwhelmed by the power of Scripture. And remember that his Bible was simply the Pentateuch; hence his frequent references to "the law". How much greater is the privilege of believers today who have the entire revelation of God between two covers not just the five books of Moses, but poetry, prophecy, Gospel narrative, early church history, and doctrinal letters! Nevertheless, despite the narrowness of the canon available to him, the Psalmist teaches us how to read Scripture.
First, he insists that we LEARN (Ps 119.7,71,73). Scripture is not like the ephemeral literature of the 21st century newspapers, magazines, passing best-sellers. These we read and forget almost at once. But the unchanging truth of God is to be stored in the treasure-house of our hearts. Second, the repetition of his key word "keep" and its synonyms urges us to OBEY (Ps 119.2,4,5,8). There is no better way to learn than to obey. Even modern educationalists recognise that hands-on instruction has a more powerful impact than mere rote learning. The Lord Jesus, for example, commanded His people to remember Him at the breaking of bread, a truth that only comes alive as we put it into practice. Third, he counsels us to VENERATE the Word, for it merits our "respect" and "fear" (Ps 119.15,38,63,120). King Josiah is a good model: that young man was overcome with grief on discovering how far his nation had departed from Gods commandments (2 Chr 34.19-21). Our sorrow today will be reserved not so much for our nation or even our assembly but for our own failures. And, finally, the Psalmist encourages us to ENJOY Gods Word (Ps 119.162; compare Job 23.12; Ps 19.7-10; Jer 15.16), for Bible study is not to be a drudgery but a delight. The book is, after all, like food, specifically honey in its sweetness, and valuable treasure. The seventeenth-century poet George Herbert puts it like this:
Oh Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart
Suck every letter, and a honey gain,
Precious for any grief in any part;
To clear the breast, to mollify all pain.
These four key words (learn, obey, venerate and enjoy) spell out another: LOVE (Ps 119.97). That at root must be our attitude to the Bible.
What we love we tend to think about. That at least tends to be the experience of human romance. Similarly, a love for Gods Word will issue in spiritual meditation, which simply means to contemplate, to ponder, to chew over the Scriptures in our mind. This will lead to an increasing respect for the Bibles unity. No verse in the book stands in isolation. It is first of all part of a whole paragraph (so we should always look at verses in their immediate context). It is secondly part of a library so tightly unified that Genesis, for example, can unlock some of the mysteries of the book of Revelation and vice-versa. The great value of getting the Word into our heart and thinking about it is that we shall inevitably find other passages springing to mind and illuminating our understanding. It is Herbert again who makes the point:
This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie.
In other words, we shall constantly be coming across unexpected links in our study of Scripture. That is the great boon of possessing a Bible packed with good marginal references. Every one of them will alert us to parallel passages, comparisons, contrasts, related verses and doctrines all of which will shed light on our reading and make Scripture plain. One of the many blessings of the Choice Gleanings yearly reading plan is that it makes one confront three sections of the Word daily: two from the Old Testament and one from the New. The result is that distant parts of the Scriptures will be found often to complement and clarify one another.
Now, as I mentioned in my first letter, the whole aim of this is to mould my life for God. Bible study must therefore have a serious input into my own spiritual development. It does not matter how accurately I can chart out the prophetic future as taught in the Scriptures if I am, say, currently engaged in disobeying my parents. Lip service and head knowledge, often the great failing of believers raised in New Testament assemblies, are no substitute for reality of soul and earnest devotedness of life. It is therefore sometimes of use to ask yourself three questions when you study a passage.
First, what is there here for my head to grasp? Biblical truth is not divorced from the intelligence rather, it is designed to fill and shape our mind-set for God. Throughout the Word God is teaching us about Himself, about His programme for Israel, the Church, and the world, about the glories of His Son, about the standards of living He expects of His redeemed people.
Second, what is there here for my heart to enjoy? Unlike academic textbooks, which may stock the brainpan but never touch the heart, Gods Word warms the soul. It assures me of the Lords unchanging love for His own, of His power to keep for ever all who have come to Him by faith, of the certainty of His soon return to take His saved people home for ever. It teaches me to view every circumstance as coming from the omnipotent hands of a God who works everything after the counsel of His own will. The Christian may not have an easy pathway down here (far from it), but he can be assured that all is ordained of God for his ultimate blessing.
Third, what is there here for my hands to do? Doctrine and devotion are essential aspects of the Word, but so is duty. Since God created us with a mind to think, emotions to be stirred and a body through which to demonstrate practical obedience, it is hardly surprising that His Word should challenge every part. Pauls great letter to the Ephesians falls into two sections: the first three chapters inform us of what God has done for His people, and the final three chapters instruct us as to how we should respond in daily obedience. Thus, a clear statement of doctrine leads into the obligation of duty. Our society, so blinded by the dead-end philosophy of pleasure and personal gain, has completely forgotten the stupendous benefits of duty: duty makes life worthwhile. That God should entrust His people with the responsibility of living for Him in a rebel world is a privilege in itself. It gives a structure to our lives (which should of course revolve around the activities of the local assembly in which He has placed us), a motivation to see us through the dullest daily routines, and the consciousness of bringing Him pleasure. I cannot resist quoting Herbert once more:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for thee:
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and thaction fine.
May our reading and study of the Word make us better people for God.