|Search the Scriptures.| -- JOHN 5:39.
MY DEAR SISTER,
I feel persuaded that you will take a deep interest in the subject of this letter; for, to a true child of God, nothing is so precious as the volume of inspiration. It is like rubies in a case of gold. That which is most valuable for practical use lies on the surface; while every examination discovers new gems of surpassing beauty.
There is this difference between the devotional reading and the thorough study of the Holy Scriptures, -- that the object of the former is to affect the heart, while that of the latter is chiefly to inform the understanding. Although this blessed book should never be used without practical application, yet, when all the powers of the mind are taxed to ascertain the critical meaning of the text, there is less opportunity for the exercise of the affections of the heart than when the mind is suffered simply to dwell upon obvious truth. For the systematic study of the Bible, portions of time should be set apart, if possible, separate from our regular seasons of devotion; or, perhaps, immediately after. For the former, a small portion should be selected from the more practical and devotional parts of the Bible.
We are commanded to search the Scriptures. Searching is a difficult and laborious work. To induce us to engage in it, we must have a strong desire for something valuable. Here is a treasure of sufficient value to call forth this desire. This blessed book contains the revealed will of God. All who love God will be anxious to know his will. They will make it the rule of their conduct. |Thy word,| says the Psalmist, |is a lamp, unto my feet, and a light unto my path.| The will of God, as made known in his word, is like a lantern, which sheds a light on our path, and directs the steps of our feet. The sincere Christian will search after a knowledge of God's will, with more eagerness than he would search for hidden treasures of gold and silver. He will set his heart to the work. This is what God commands. After Moses had given the law of God to the children of Israel, he said unto them, |Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day.| This is a very strong expression. To set our hearts to any work, is to go about it in earnest, with all the energies of our souls. Again; when we make great search for anything we very much desire and highly prize, and find it, we are very apt to keep it. Hence David says, |Thy word have I hid in my heart.| But mark the reason of his conduct. Why did he hide God's word in his heart? He explains his motive: |That I might not sin against thee.| His object, in hiding God's word in his heart, was to know how to regulate his conduct so as not to sin against him. You must feel a personal interest in the truth. You must study it as the directory of your life. When you open this blessed book, let this always be the sincere inquiry of your heart: |Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?| Come to it with this childlike spirit of obedience, and you will not fail to learn the will of God. But when you have learned your duty in God's word, do it without delay. Here are two very important points of Christian character, quite too much overlooked. (1.) An earnest desire to know present duty. (2.) A steadfast and settled determination to do it as soon as it is known. Here lies the grand secret of high spiritual attainments. A person who acts from these principles may make greater progress in a single day than a tardy, procrastinating spirit in a long life. The pressure of obligation rests upon the present moment. Remember, when you have ascertained present duty, the delay of a single moment is sin. With these remarks, I submit a few practical directions for the profitable reading and study of the Holy Scriptures.
1. Read the Bible in your closet, or under circumstances which will secure you from interruption, either by the conversation of others, or the attractions of other objects. Do not attempt to fill up little broken intervals of time with the reading of God's word. Leave these seasons for lighter reading. Remember, the reading of the Scriptures is nothing less than conversing with God. When any one pays so little attention to your conversation as not to understand what you say, you consider it a great breach of politeness. God speaks to you whenever you read his holy word. His all-seeing eye rests upon your heart; and he knows whether you are engaged in solemn trifling. If you read his word so carelessly as not to understand its meaning and drink in its spirit, you treat him as you would disdain to be treated by an earthly friend. O the forbearance of God, who suffers such indignity from those who call themselves his children! Never approach the word of God but with feelings of reverence and godly fear.
2. Come to the work with a preparation of heart. If you were going to visit some person of great consequence, whose favor and esteem you wished to secure, you would take care to have everything about your person adjusted in the most becoming manner. So let it be with your mind, when you come to converse with God. Shut out all worldly thoughts. Strive to bring yourself into a tranquil, holy, and tender frame, so that the truths you contemplate may make their proper impression upon your heart.
3. Seek the aid of the Holy Spirit. Christ promised his disciples that, when the Holy Spirit should come, he would |guide them into all truth.| Without his enlightening influences, we cannot understand the word of God; and without his gracious influences upon the heart, we shall not be disposed to obey it. We have the most abundant encouragement to seek the aid of this Divine Instructor. Christ assures us that God is more willing to give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him, than earthly parents are to give good gifts to their children. Before opening God's word, pray that he would show you the truth, the rule of your duty, and incline your heart to obey it. As you proceed, keep your heart silently lifted up to God for the same object.
4. Read with self-application. Whenever you have discovered any truth, ask what bearing it has upon your present duty. If it relates to spiritual feelings, compare it with the exercises of your own heart. If they do not correspond, you have work for repentance. Go immediately to the cross of Christ; give yourself away to him anew, and seek for pardon and needed grace. This you may do instantly, either in a silent or an audible prayer. If it relates to the spirit and temper of Christians, in their intercourse with one another, or with the world, compare it with your own conduct. If you find yourself condemned, you have the same course to pursue, with a steadfast determination to exhibit more of the spirit of Christ. If it relates to some positive duty, inquire whether you have done it. If not, you have to go through the same work of repentance and application to the blood of Christ. But do not stop here. Do your duty immediately.
5. Read the Scriptures regularly. To sustain these frail bodies, a daily supply of nourishment is required. Equally necessary is daily food for the soul. The word of God is the bread of eternal life. Take, then, your regular supplies of spiritual food, that your soul may not famish. Choose for this purpose those seasons when you are least liable to interruption; when you can retire and shut out the world; when you can best command the energies of your mind. There is no time more fit and suitable for this than the morning. Then the mind is clear, vigorous, unincumbered, and prepared to receive an impression. There is also a propriety in consulting God's word at the close of the day. But this depends much upon the state of bodily feeling. If you become exhausted and dull, after the labors of the day, I would rather recommend taking the whole time in the morning. But by no means confine yourself to these stated seasons. Whenever the nature of your pursuits will admit of your seclusion for a sufficient length of time to fix your mind upon the truth, you may freely drink from this never-failing fountain of the water of life.
6. Study the Scriptures systematically. If you read at random, here a little and there a little, your views of divine truth will be partial and limited. This method may indeed be pursued in regard to reading strictly devotional; but only when other time is taken for obtaining a connected view and a critical understanding of the whole Bible. The Bible is like a dish of savory meats. There is almost every variety of style and matter. There is History, Biography, Argumentative and Didactic Essays, and Poetry. Although these various kinds of writing are contained in a great number of books, written by various authors, at different times, without concert, yet a remarkable unity of design runs through the whole. They all aim at the development of the plan of God's moral government; and a most striking harmony of sentiment prevails throughout. We find everything, from the very beginning, pointing to the glorious plan of redemption revealed in the Gospel. Although we may, at first view, feel the want of a regular system of divinity, yet, a careful attention to the subject will convince us that God's plan is best. We have here the principles of his government exhibited in living examples; which give us a clearer view, and more vivid impression of them, than we could obtain from the study of an abstract system. There are several things to be observed, in the systematic and thorough study of the Bible, some of which I shall mention.
(1.) Always keep distinctly before you the grand design of the Scriptures; which is, to convince mankind of their lost and ruined condition, make known the way of salvation, and persuade them to embrace it.
(2.) Make it your constant aim to ascertain what is the plain and obvious meaning of the writer; for this is the mind of the Spirit. To aid you in this, observe the following particulars: 1. Endeavor to become acquainted with the peculiarity of each writer's style. Although the matter and words of Scripture were dictated by the Holy Spirit, yet it was so done that each writer employed a style and manner peculiar to himself. This does not invalidate the evidence of their divine origin. On the contrary, it shows the wisdom of the Spirit. For, if the whole Bible had been written in a uniform style, it would have given opposers a strong argument against its authenticity; while the want of that uniformity furnishes conclusive evidence that it could not have been the work of a single impostor. Again; a continued sameness of style would make the reading of so large a book as the Bible tedious and unpleasant; but the rich variety presented by the various authors of this blessed book, helps our infirmities, and makes the reading of it pleasing and delightful.2. |Inquire into the character, situation, and office of the writer; the time, place, and occasion of his writing; and the people for whose immediate use he intended his work.| This will enable you to understand his allusions to particular circumstances and customs, and to see the practical application of the principles he advances.3. Consider the principal scope or aim of the book; or, what was the author's object, design, or intention, in writing it. Notice also the general plan or method which he has pursued. This will enable you to discover his leading ideas, if it be an argumentative work; or the particular instructions of God's providence, if it be historical.4. Where the language is difficult to be understood, pay strict attention to the context, and you will generally find the author's meaning explained. But, if you do not, consider whether the difficult phrase is a peculiarity of the writer's style. If so, look out the place where he has used it in a different connection, and see what meaning is attached to it there. But, if this does not satisfy you, examine the passages, in other parts of the Scriptures, which relate to the same subject, and compare them with the one under consideration. This will generally clear up the darkest passages. But, if you still feel in doubt, you may find assistance from consulting commentators, who have made themselves thoroughly acquainted with all the particulars I have mentioned; which, with a knowledge of the language in which the book was originally written, may have enabled them to remove the difficulty. But, do not trust the opinions of commentators any farther than you see they agree with the general system of revealed truth; and, above all, do not follow them in any scheme of fanciful interpretation or visionary speculation.
(3.) Do not task yourself with a certain quantity of reading at the regular seasons devoted to the study of the Bible. This may lead you to hurry over it, without ascertaining its meaning, or drinking in its spirit. You had better study one verse thoroughly, than to read half a dozen chapters carelessly. The nourishment received from food depends less on the quantity than on its being perfectly digested. So with the mind; one clear idea is better than a dozen confused ones; and there is such a thing as overloading the mind with undigested knowledge. Ponder upon every portion you read, until you get a full and clear view of the truth it contains. Fix your mind and heart upon it, as the bee lights upon the flower; and do not leave it till you have extracted all the honey it contains.
(4.) Read in course. By studying the whole Bible in connection, you will obtain a more enlarged view of the plan of God's moral government. And you will see how it all centres in the Lord Jesus Christ. But I would not have you confine yourself entirely to the regular reading of the whole Bible in course. Some portions of the historical part do not require so much study as that which is more argumentative and doctrinal; and some parts of the word of God are more devotional than others, and therefore better fitted for daily practical use. A very good plan is, to read the Old and New Testaments in course, a portion in each, every day. If you begin at Genesis, Job, and Matthew, and read a chapter every day, at each place, omitting the first, and reading three Psalms, on the Sabbath, you will read the whole Bible in a year, while on every day you will have a suitable variety. Besides this, the more devotional and practical books should be read frequently. The Psalms furnish a great variety of Christian experience, and may be resorted to with great profit and comfort, under all circumstances. This is the only book in the Bible which does not require to be read in course. The Psalms are detached from each other, having no necessary connection. The other books were originally written like a sermon or a letter. They have, for convenience, since been divided into chapters and verses. If you read a single chapter by itself, you lose the connection; as, if you should take up a sermon and read a page or two, you would not get a full view of the author's subject. I would therefore recommend that, in addition to your daily reading in the Old and New Testaments, you have also some one of those books which require most study, in a course of reading, to take up whenever you have an occasional season of leisure to devote to the study of the Bible. But, when you have commenced one book, finish it before you begin another. You will find great advantage from the use of a reference Bible and concordance. By looking out the parallel passages, as you proceed, you will see how one part of the Scriptures explains another, and how beautifully they all harmonize. This will also give you a better view of the whole Scriptures than you can obtain in any other way. But if you are a Sabbath-school teacher or scholar, your regular lesson will furnish as much study of this description as you will be able thoroughly to accomplish.
(5.) In reading the Scriptures, there are some subjects of inquiry which you should carry along with you constantly: 1. What do I find here which points to Christ? Unless you keep this before your mind, you will lose half the interest of many parts of the Old Testament. Indeed, much of it will otherwise be almost without meaning. It is full of types and prophecies relating to Christ, which, by themselves, appear dry, but, when understood, most beautiful and full of instruction.2. Remember that the Bible contains a history of the church. Endeavor, then, to learn the state of the church at the time of which you are reading. For the sake of convenience, and a clearer view of the subject, you may divide the history of the church into six periods: (1.) From the fall of Adam to the flood. (2.) From Noah to the giving of the law. (3.) From that time to David and the prophets. (4.) From David to the Babylonish captivity. (5.) From that time till the coming of Christ. (6.) From Christ to the end of time, which is called the gospel dispensation. From the commencement you will see a gradual development of God's designs of mercy, and a continually increasing light. Take notice of what period of the church you are reading; and from this you may judge of the degree of obligation of its members; for this has been increasing with the increase of light, from the fall of Adam to the present day; and it will continue to increase to the end of time. Note, also, the various declensions and revivals of religion which have occurred in every period of the church, and endeavor to learn their causes and consequences. By this, you will become familiar with God's method of dealing with his people; from which you may draw practical lessons of caution and encouragement for yourself.3. Inquire what doctrinal truth is either taught, illustrated, or enforced, in the passage you are reading; and also, what principle is recognized. Great and important principles of the divine government and of practical duty are often implied in a passage of history which relates to a comparatively unimportant event. Let it be your business to draw out these principles, and apply them to practice. Thus, you will be daily increasing your knowledge of the great system of divine truth, the necessity of which I need not urge.4. Note every promise and every prediction; and observe God's faithfulness in keeping his promises and fulfilling his prophecies. This will tend to strengthen your confidence in him. You will find it profitable, as you proceed, to take notes of these several matters, particularly; and, at the close of every book, review your notes, and sum them up under different heads.
(6.) Read the gospels with great care, for the particular purpose of studying the character of the blessed Jesus. Dwell upon every action of his life, and inquire after his motives. By this course you will be surprised to find the Godhead shining through the manhood, in little incidents which you have often read without interest. Look upon him at all times in his true character, as Mediator between God and man. Observe his several offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. See in which of these characters he is acting at different times; and inquire what bearing the particular action you are considering has upon his mediatorial character. Observe, also, the particular traits of character which appear conspicuous in particular actions; as power, energy, manly hardihood, dignity, condescension, humility, love, meekness, pity, compassion, tenderness, forgiveness, &c. Take notes; and when you have finished the course, draw from them, in writing, a minute and particular description of his character. This will be of great service to you as a pattern. You will also, by this means, see a peculiar beauty and fitness in Christ for the office he has undertaken, which you would not otherwise have discovered. But, do not stop with going through this course once. Repeat it as often as you can consistently with your plan of a systematic study of the Holy Scriptures. You will always find something new; and upon every fresh discovery, you can revise your old notes.
(7.) In reading the historical and biographical parts of Scripture, several things are necessary to be observed: 1. The histories contained in the Bible are the histories of God's providence. Observe his hand in every event. You will there find some principle or law of his moral government exemplified. Inquire what that principle is, and carefully observe its application to the conduct of nations, communities, and individuals.2. Whenever you read of particular mercies or judgments, as experienced by nations, communities, or individuals, look back for the cause. By this you will discover the principles upon which God acts in these matters.3. In the biographies of the Bible, study the motives and conduct of the characters described. If they are unconverted men, you will learn the workings of human depravity, and discover what kind of influence a correct religious public sentiment has in restraining that depravity. If they are good men, you will see, in their good actions, living illustrations of the great doctrines of the Bible. Endeavor to learn by what means they made such eminent attainments in holiness, and strive to imitate them. If their actions are bad, look back and inquire into the cause of their backslidings. If you discover it, you will find a way-mark, to caution you against falling into the same pit.
(8.) The poetical and didactic parts of the Scriptures are scattered throughout the whole Bible. These abound with highly wrought figures. This is probably owing partly to the insufficiency of ordinary language to express the sublime and lofty ideas presented to the minds of the writers by the Spirit of truth. Endeavor to obtain a clear and correct understanding of the figures used. These are often taken from prevailing habits and customs, and from circumstances peculiar to the countries where the Scriptures were written. These habits and circumstances you must understand, or you will not see the force of the allusions. Others are taken from circumstances peculiar to particular occupations in life. These must also be thoroughly studied, in order to be understood. But, where the figures are drawn from things perfectly familiar, you will not perceive their surprising beauty and exact fitness to express the idea of the sacred pen-man, until you have carefully studied them, and noted the minutest circumstances. Beware, however, that you do not carry out those figures so far as to lead you into fanciful and visionary interpretations.
(9.) The books of the prophets consist of reproofs, exhortations, warnings, threatenings, predictions, and promises. By carefully studying the circumstances and characters of those for whom they were written, you will find the principles and laws of God's moral government set forth, in their application to nations, communities, and individuals. From these you may draw practical rules of duty, and also learn how to view the hand of God, in his providence, in different ages of the world. The predictions contained in these books are the most difficult to be understood of any part of the Bible. In reading them you will notice, 1. Those predictions whose fulfilment is recorded in the Bible, and diligently examine the record of their fulfilment. You will see how careful God is to fulfil every jot and tittle of his word.2. There are other prophecies, the fulfilment of which is recorded in profane history; and others still which are yet unfulfilled. To understand these, it will be necessary to read ancient and modern history, in connection with the explanation of the prophecies by those writers who have made them their study. An attention to this, so far as your circumstances will admit, will be useful in enlarging your views of the kingdom of Christ. But, beware of becoming so deeply absorbed in these matters as to neglect those of a more practical nature; and especially be cautious of advancing far into the regions of speculation as to what is yet future.
(10.) You will find it an interesting and profitable employment occasionally to read a given book through, for the purpose of seeing what light it throws upon some particular subject, -- some point of Christian doctrine, duty, practice, character, &c. For example, go through with Acts, with your eye upon the doctrine of Christ's divinity. Then go through with it a second time, to see what light it throws on the subject of Revivals. Pursue the same course with other books, and in respect to other subjects. In this way you will sometimes be surprised to find how much you have overlooked in your previous reading.
It will be perceived that I have laid out a very extensive and laborious work. But this is the great business of our lives; and, indeed, the contemplation of the glorious truths revealed in the Bible will form the business of eternity; and even that will be too short to learn the length and breadth, and height and depth, of the ways of the Almighty.
Your affectionate Brother.