The whole of Christian Living, in my opinion, hinges on the way in which Christian people read the Bible for themselves. All sermons and addresses, all Bible-readings and classes, all religious magazines and books, can never take the place of our own quiet study of God's precious Word. We may measure our growth in grace by the growth of our love for private Bible study; and we may be sure that there is something seriously wrong, when we lose our appetite for the Bread of Life. Perhaps we have been eating too many sweets; or taking too little exercise; or breathing too briefly in the bracing air which sweeps over the uplands of Spiritual Communion with God.
Happy are they who have learnt the blessed art of discovering for themselves the treasures of the Bible, which are hidden just a little below the surface, so as to test our real earnestness in finding them! No specimens are so interesting as those which the naturalist has obtained by his own exertions, and each of which has a history. No flowers are so fragrant as those which we discover for ourselves, nestling in some woodland dell, remote from the eye and step of men. No pearls are so priceless as those which we have sought for ourselves in the calm clear depths of the ocean of Truth. Only those who know it can realize the joy that fills the spirit when one has made a great " find," in some hidden connection, some fresh reference, or some railway lines from verse to verse.
There are a few simple rules which may help many more to acquire this holy art, and I venture to note them down. May the Holy Spirit Himself own and use them!
The Divine Teacher must have fixed and uninterrupted hours for meeting His scholars. His Word must have our freshest and brightest thoughts. We must give Him our best, and the first-fruits of our days. Hence, there is no time for Bible study like the early morning. We cannot give such undivided attention to the holy thoughts that glisten like diamonds on its pages after we have opened our letters, glanced through the paper, and joined in the prattle of the breakfast table. The manna had to be gathered by the Israelites of old before the dew was off and the sun was up; otherwise it melted.
We ought, therefore, to aim at securing at least half an hour before breakfast, for the leisurely and loving study of the Bible. To some this may seem a long time in comparison with what they now give. But it will soon seem all too short. The more you read the Bible, the more you will want to read it. It is an appetite which grows as it is fed.
And you will be well repaid. The Bible seldom speaks, and certainly never its deepest, sweetest words, to those who always read it in a hurry. Nature can only tell her secrets to such as will sit still in her sacred temple till their eyes lose the glare of earthly glory, and their ears are attuned to her voice. And shall Revelation do what Nature cannot? Never. The man who shall win the blessedness of hearing her must watch daily at her gates and wait at the posts of her doors. There is no chance for a lad to grow, who only gets an occasional mouthful of food and always swallows that in a hurry!
Of course this season before breakfast is not possible for all. The invalid, the nurse with broken rest, the public servant, whose night is often turned into day-these stand alone, and the Lord Jesus can make it up to them, sitting with them at mid-day, if needs be, beside the well. In the case of such as can only snatch a few words of Scripture as they hasten to their work, there will be repeated the miracle of the manna. "He that gathered much had nothing over"; that is, all we get in our morning reading is not too much for the needs of the day; "and he that gathered little had no lack"; that is, when, by force of circumstances, we are unable to do more than snatch up a hasty handful of manna, it will last us all through the day; the cruse of oil shall not waste, and the barrel of meal shall not fail.
It would be impossible to name all who have traced their usefulness and power to this priceless habit. Sir Henry Havelock always spent the first two hours of each day alone with God; and if the encampment was struck at 6 A. M., he would rise at 4. Earl Cairns rose daily at 6 o'clock to secure an hour and a half for the study of the Bible and for prayer, before conducting family worship at a quarter to eight-even when the late hours of the House of Commons left him not more than two hours for his night's rest. It is the practice of a beloved friend, who stands in the front rank of modern missionaries, to spend at least three hours each morning with his Bible; and he has said that he often puts aside pressing engagements that he may not only have time but be fresh for it.
There is no doubt a difficulty in awakening and arising early enough to get time for our Bible before breakfast. But these difficulties present no barrier to those who must get away early for daily business, or for the appointments of pleasure. If we mean to get up, we can get up. Of course we must prepare the way for early rising, by retiring early to obtain our needed rest, though it be at the cost of some cosy hours by the fireside in the winter's night. But with due forethought and fixed purpose the thing can surely de done. "All things are possible to him that believeth."
I never shall forget seeing Charles Studd, early one November morning, clothed in flannels to protect himself from the cold, and rejoicing that the Lord had awakened him at 4 A. M. to study His commands. He told me then that it was his custom to trust the Lord to call him and enable him to rise. Might not we all do this? The weakest can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth. And though you have failed again and again when you have trusted your own resolutions, you cannot fail when you are simply trusting him. "He wakeneth morning by morning." "He took him by the right hand, and lifted him up; and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength."
No one can so well explain the meaning of his words as he who wrote them. Tennyson could best explain some of his deeper references in "In Memoriam." If, then, you want to read the Bible as you should, make much of the Holy Ghost, who inspired it through holy men. As you open the book, lift up your hearts, and say: "Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law … Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth."
It is marvelous what slender light commentaries cast on the inner meaning of Scripture. A simple-hearted believer, depending on the aid of the Holy Ghost, will find things in the Bible which the wisest have mistaken or missed. Well might St. John say of such, "Ye need not that any man should teach you; but the anointing, which ye have received, teacheth you of all things," What fire is to sympathetic ink, bringing the colorless fluid out black and clear, that the teaching of the Holy Ghost is to passages in the Bible which had seemed meaningless and bare.
We can never know too much of that literature which throws side-lights on the Bible, and which unfolds the customs of the people, difficult allusions, historical coincidences, geographical details. Geikie's Hours with the Bible; Kitto's Daily Illustrations, edited by Dr. Porter; Dr. Smith's Bible Dictionary; books like these are invaluable. But we should study them at another time than in the sacred morning hour, which we give to the Holy Ghost alone.
On the whole there is probably no better way than to read the Bible through once every year. There is a very good plan for doing this in the life of the sainted McCheyne, who drew it up for his people. Or it may be done by taking daily, in a Bagster's Bible, three columns of the Old Testament, two of the New Testament, and one of the Psalms. This system will more than do it.
The next best plan to this is that adopted by Mr. Richardson's Bible Reading Union, which consists of tens of thousands of Christians in every part of the world, who read one chapter a day in regular rotation, and thus get through the Book in about three years.
It is wise to have a good copy of the Scriptures, strongly bound for wear and tear, of good clear print, and with as much space as possible for notes. A book of which you can make a friend and inseparable companion. But it is above all things wise at first to select one with copious marginal references, so that it may be easy to turn to the parallel passages. For myself, this plan has invested my Bible reading with new interest. I love to have in front of me one of the Paragraph Bibles of the Religious Tract Society, which abound in well-chosen references, and a small pocket Bible in my hand, that I may easily turn to any reference I desire; and very often I get more blessing from the passages to which I refer, and those to which these lead, than from the one I may be reading.
After a while, we shall begin to make references for ourselves; and then we may use a copy of the Revised Bible, that we may not only be able to read God's word in the most approved English rendering, which is an immense advantage, but that we may also be able to fill up the empty margins with the notes of parallel passages.
But whatever system is adopted, be sure to read the Bible through on some system, as you would any other book. No one would think of reading a letter, poem, or history, as many read God's Word. What wonder that they are so ignorant of its majestic prose, its exquisite lyric poetry, its massive arguments, its sublime imagery, its spiritual beauty-qualities which combine to make it the King of Books, even though the halo of Inspiration did not shine like a crown about its brow!
It is sometimes well to read a book at a sitting, devoting two or three hours to the sacred task. At other times, it is more profitable to take an epoch, or an episode, or a life, and compare all that is written of it in various parts of Scripture. At other times, again, it is well to follow the plan on which Mr. Moody has so often insisted, of taking one word or thought, as Faith, or Love, or Able, and tracing it, by help of a concordance, from end to end of the inspired volume. But in any case, let the whole Bible be your study; because "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable." Even the rocky places shall gush with water springs. The most barren chapters shall blossom as the rose. "Out of the eater shall come forth meat, and sweetness out of the strong."
Let us never forget that the Bible is one Book; the work of one Infinite Spirit, speaking through prophet and priest, shepherd and king, the old- world patriarch and the apostle who lived to see Jerusalem leveled to the ground. You may subject its words to the most searching test, but you will find they will always bear the same meaning, and move in the same direction. Let the Bible be its own dictionary, its own interpreter, its own best commentary. It is like a vast buried city, in which every turn of the spade reveals some new marvel, whilst passages branch off in every direction, calling for exploration.
Writing of F. R. Havergal, her sister says, "She read her Bible at her study table by seven o'clock in the summer, and eight o'clock in winter. Sometimes, on bitterly cold mornings, I begged that she would read with her feet comfortably to the fire, and received the reply: 'But then, Marie, I can't rule my lines neatly; just see what a find I've got!' If only one searches, there are such extraordinary things in the Bible! She resolutely refrained from late hours and frittering talks at night, in place of Bible searching and holy communings. Early rising and early studying were her rule through life."
None, in my judgment, have learnt the secret of enjoying the Bible until they have commenced to mark it, neatly. Underlining and dating special verses, which have cast a light upon their path on special days. Drawing railway connections, across the pages, between verses which repeat the same message, or ring with the same note. Jotting down new references, or the catchwords of helpful thoughts. All these methods find plenty of employment for the pen, and fix our treasures for us permanently. Our Bible then becomes the precious memento of by-gone hours, and records the history of our inner life.
Do not read the Bible for others, for class or congregation, but for yourself. Bring all its rays to a focus on your own heart. Whilst you are reading, often ask that some verse or verses may start out from the printed page, as God's message to yourself. Never close the book until you feel that you are carrying away your portion of meat from that Hand which satisfieth the desire of every living thing. It is well, sometimes, to stop reading, and seriously ask, "What does the Holy Spirit mean me to learn by this? What bearing should this have on my life? How can I work this into the fabric of my character?"
Let not the Bible be to you simply as a history, a treatise, or a poem, but as your Father's letter to yourself; in which there are some things which you will not understand till you come into the circumstances which require them; but which is also full of present help. There is a great difference between the way in which an absent child scans the parcel of newspapers, and that in which he devours the home letter, by which the beloved parent speaks. Both are interesting, but the one is general, the other is all to himself. Read the Bible, not as a newspaper, but as a home letter.
If a cluster of heavenly fruit hangs within reach, gather it. If a promise lies upon the page as a blank check, cash it. If a prayer is recorded, appropriate it, and launch it as a feathered arrow from the bow of your desire. If an example of holiness gleams before you, ask God to do as much for you. If a truth is revealed in all its intrinsic splendor, entreat that its brilliance may ever irradiate the hemisphere of your life like a star. Entwine the climbing creepers of holy desire about the lattice work of Scripture. So shall you come to say with the Psalmist, "Oh, how I love Thy law, it is my meditation all the day!"
It is sometimes well to read over, on our knees, Psalm 119, so full of devout love for the Bible. And if any should chide us for spending so much time upon the Old Testament, or the New, let us remind them of the words of Christ, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." The Old Testament must be worth our study since it was our Saviour's Bible, deeply pondered and often quoted. And the New demands it, since it is so full of what He said and did, not only in His earthly life, but through the medium of His holy apostles and prophets.
The advantages of a deep knowledge of the Bible are more than can be numbered here. It is the Storehouse of the Promises. It is the Sword of the Spirit, before which temptation flees. It is the all-sufficient Equipment for Christian usefulness. It is the believer's Guidebook and Directory in all possible circumstances. Words fail to tell how glad, how strong, how useful shall be the daily life of those, who can say with the Prophet: "Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and Thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart."
But there is one thing, which may be said last, because it is most important, and should linger in the memory and heart, though all the other exhortations of this chapter should pass away as a summer brook. It is this. It is useless to dream of making headway in the knowledge of Scripture unless we are prepared to practice each new and clearly-defined duty which looms out before our view. We are taught, not for our pleasure only, but that we may do. If we will turn each holy precept or command into instant obedience, through the dear grace of Jesus Christ our Lord, God will keep nothing back from us; He will open to us His deepest and sweetest thoughts. But so long as we refuse obedience to even the least command, we shall find that the light will fade from the page of Scripture, and the zest will die down quickly in our own hearts.
“This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.” Joshua 1:8
Taken from F. B. Meyer's Light on Life's Duties, (Chicago, IL: Fleming H. Revell, 1895), pp 72-85.