READ : Psalm 1:1-2
Christians are people of the book, but for us the Bible is much more than a religious text. It should be our delight!
This is a joy for me to talk about: “How to Read the Bible.” What I have in mind is not a technique. I’m not going to talk about phonics or word recognition or grammar. You probably have all the basic reading skills you need. Some time ago I took a long trip by car. While I was driving, I obviously couldn’t read anything, but I had the Scriptures with me on cassette tapes, and I listened to them during a good part of the journey. So I was able to hear the Word of God, think about it and respond to it, even when I couldn’t read it.
What I’m really concerned about is your reading or hearing, your receiving the Word of the Bible in such a way that it will enrich your life so that it will do you great good.
In the very first psalm of the Bible, we read about a man whom God calls “blessed,” whom he considers happy. And right at the heart of that description is the way in which he responds to God’s Word. Listen:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
There it is – a word from God on how to read the Bible: with reverence, with reflection, and with regularity. And we learn, when we so receive it, that we will also read with rejoicing. We will be among the blessed. We will be the truly happy ones.
It is basic to everything else that we should read the Bible with reverence. For the readers called “blessed,” it is “the law of the Lord,” his self-disclosure, his revealed will. In the Holy Scriptures, God himself speaks to us. Not everyone who reads or hears the Bible is aware of that. Some deal with the Holy Scriptures as though they were merely human documents. Some pick and choose as to what they will value and believe in the Bible. Some reject its message outright. In the days of Jeremiah the prophet, there was an arrogant king who had his servants read to him the Word of the Lord from a scroll and then proceeded to cut the scroll in pieces and burn it. It’s possible, then, to read the Scriptures with indifference or even with contempt.
Blessed readers, though, know that when they are dealing with the Bible’s message, they are dealing with God. They recognize his authority as Lord, his right to command. They read submissively, ready to heed what he may say, ready to do what he may command. So the blessed man “does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.” That is, he doesn’t let himself be guided by the advice of evildoers. He doesn’t “stand in the way of sinners.” In other words, he doesn’t conform to their example. Nor does he sit in the seat of scoffers, sharing in their mockery of all that is sacred. He, you see, is listening to God and not to the spirit of the age, the unbelieving world around him. He marches, as we say, to a different drum. He gets his orders from God’s Word.
A part of listening reverently is listening with prayer. If we are rightly to receive the Word, we need God’s enlightening, the help of his Spirit. God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, his ways than our ways. To be a reverent reader is to pray, “Lord, open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things out of your law.” It is to cry, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.” Or, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
Remember how the risen Lord opened the minds of his disciples so that they could understand the Old Testament and see how it all pointed to him? We need him to do that for us. The goal of all our reading is that we should meet the living God and take in what he has to say to us. If you want to read the Word with profit, by all means read it with reverence, recognizing God’s authority. Be ready to submit to his will, renouncing everything that displeases him, asking all along for the gracious teaching ministry of his Spirit.
Secondly, read the Bible with reflection. The blessed man, says the psalmist, meditates on God’s Word. God’s Word in the Scriptures is meant to be, as we often put it, internalized.
Think of what happens as parents train their children. They teach them with unwearied repetition how they ought to act – what behavior is forbidden, and what desired. They seek to reinforce their precepts by the power of example. As time goes on, they explain to children why a certain way of living is called for. And all the while, these parents, by the way they live, are unconsciously inculcating certain values, standards, and perspectives on life.
All parents know that children will not always be “under their roof.” Mom and Dad will not be able indefinitely to go on instructing and advising their children. Their hope is that what they have tried to teach and model will be internalized. Their sons and daughters will come to have their own independent convictions and commitments. They will make personal choices now which are informed by values they have taken in and made their own. Thus, the outward authority of the parents has become an inward rule for the children.
In a similar way, at an even deeper level, God wants his Word to be written upon our hearts. He wants us to receive the Word not mindlessly but to think about it, to turn it over in our minds, and to explore its varied application to our lives.
When God’s Word gets inside of us, it can do wonderful things. Jesus teaches about his sayings, “They are spirit and they are life.” The Word is called a “life-giving” word, “active,” “powerful.” It’s able to save us, set us free, equip us for every good work. But we have to ponder it and reflect upon it with our minds if it is ever to stir our emotions and move our wills. That’s why Jesus says to his followers who have received a new hearing capacity: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In other words, “Listen carefully. Pay attention to what you hear. Use that capacity.”
One of the richest ways of meditating on the Word is by memorizing it. Perhaps that’s what the psalmist meant when he said, “Thy Word have I hid in my heart.” He cherished it, mused on it, and, as we say, “learned it by heart.” Jesus spoke about how his words are to “abide” or “remain” in us. And when we memorize portions of Scripture, they do. They dwell in our consciousness. They come back to mind again and again in situations to which their words apply. They work in us even below the level of consciousness to conform us to God’s will, to keep us growing in his likeness.
I’ll always be grateful that someone suggested to me early in my Christian life that I should memorize portions of Scripture. I began to do that in earnest when I was at college. I went from key verses to favorite chapters, then even to some of the shorter books of the Bible. For long periods of time, I was literally thinking Scripture, going over verses in my mind. When I had a free hour on a bus or a train or while driving a car or taking a walk, I was committing the Word of God to memory, repeating it to myself over and over again. If you’ve ever done anything like that, you know how the words can almost become a part of you. Their mood and meaning open up surprisingly to you. I’m still enriched today and aided in my ministry by what I first memorized decades ago.
Many Christians like to conserve the fruits of their meditation. As they ponder a passage of Scripture, they write down in a journal various thoughts that occur to them. In that way, they both deepen their grasp of what’s being taught and also store up insights for future reflection.
You perhaps will develop your own way to internalize the Scripture. But however you do it, always read with reflection, with care. Discipline yourself to meditate on God’s Word.
That thought about discipline leads me to my next thought: Read the Bible with regularity. The psalmist sings about a man who meditates on the Word of the Lord day and night. He must have had frequent exposure to that Word. He must have been listening to it or studying it each day of his life. And that, friends, is a worthwhile pattern to follow!
Do you remember the word which Jesus quoted when he was tempted to turn stones into bread? “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”’ The basic thought here is that God is the one who sustains our life, though he normally uses food to do it. But the implication is that what we need at least as much as our daily bread is the Word of God. Our true sustenance, our real strength, comes from listening to God and depending on what he says. Very few of us, if any food is available, will go through a whole day without eating. But we sometimes find it easy to go through many days without reading God’s Word. No wonder our spiritual health suffers. No wonder we grow feeble in faith. Our souls are not being regularly fed!
It’s a good thing to read the Scriptures even spasmodically. Just taking in the Word “now and then” can refresh and enrich your life. But hear this about the blessed man, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water. It yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither.” The tree that’s planted by the riverside doesn’t depend on chance occasional showers. It isn’t at the mercy of the changing seasons. Its roots reach down into richly watered soil, so that the leaves are always green and fresh. At the time for fruit, its branches are laden with good things. Its supply of nourishment and refreshment is constant. It’s always taking in and giving out.
I notice in the summertime various kinds of lawns around me. Some in late July or August are parched and brown. Others have spots of green here and there, while still others are richly verdant, green all over. The difference? Three types of care: no watering; spotty, irregular watering; and steady watering day by day.
The Bible is a big book, actually 66 books in all. But to read it through at least once a year is well within the reach of anyone. If you read just four chapters a day, you can read through the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice every year. You can receive a resource from Words of Hope that will help you to do that.
Some read best and most alertly in the morning. Others like to dwell on the Word before they go to sleep. It’s a great thing for families to read the Bible together at meal time. Find the time that’s best for you. But because it is the Word of God and the food you most deeply need, see that you partake of it regularly.
If you do read the Word, reverently, reflectively, regularly, God says you are a blessed man or woman, guy or girl. You are drinking at a fountain of real joy. Listen to this word from Jeremiah’s prophecy,
Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.
Jeremiah 15:16, nrsv
The psalmist put it this way, “I rejoice at your word as one that finds great spoil” (Psalm 119:162, rsv). For him, reading the Word was like coming upon a fabulous treasure.
Many Christians can testify that reading the Scriptures in this way has made them deeply glad. That’s the witness I bring you today. I’ve been trying to read the Bible as God’s message, to think about it, to keep coming back to it, day after day for over 50 years. I can’t tell you the joy it has brought to my life. But I can tell you why it brings such happiness. Reading the Bible as the blessed man did brings us to One who is the heart of the Bible’s message, to Jesus Christ. There we meet him, the One who came to share our life, to bear our sins, to be our Savior. There we come to know him, the risen Lord who grants forgiveness and new life to all who trust him. Why does reading the Bible in this way deeply satisfy our hearts? This is why: as we take in the Scripture’s message, we ‘‘taste and see that the Lord is good”!