“It shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them” (Deuteronomy 17:19)
“He shall read in it,” that is, the book of the law, “all the days of his life.” The holy scripture is as Austin saith, a golden epistle sent to us from God. This is to be read diligently. Ignorance of scripture is the mother of error. . . .”Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures” (Matt 22:29). We are commanded to “search the scriptures” (John 5:39). The Greek word [for search] signifies to search as for a vein of silver. How diligently doth a child read over his father’s will and testament, and a citizen peruse his charter! With the like diligence should we read God’s word, which is our Magna Charta for heaven. It is a mercy the Bible is not prohibited. Let us inquire at this sacred oracle. Apollos was “mighty in the scriptures” (Acts 18:24). as Jerome speaks. Were the scriptures only in their original tongue, many would plead excuse for not reading; but when “this sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17) is unsheathed, and the word is made plain to us by being translated, what should hinder us from a diligent search into these holy mysteries? Adam was forbid, upon pain of death, to taste of the tree of knowledge: “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17). But there is no danger of touching this tree of holy scriptures; if we do not eat of this tree of knowledge, we shall surely die. What will become of them who are strangers to scripture? “I have written to him the great things of my law; but they were counted as a strange things” (Hosea 8:12). Many lay aside scripture as rusty armour (Jer. 8:9); they are better read in romances that in St. Paul; they spend many hours inter pectinem et speculum, “between the comb and the glass”; but their eyes begin to be sore when they look upon a Bible. They who slight the word written, slight God himself, whose stamp it bears. To slight the king’s edict, is an affront offered to the person of the king. Scripture-vilifiers are in a damnable state. “Whoso despiseth the word shall be destroyed” (Prov. 13:13). Nor is it enough to read the word of God, but it should be our care to get some spiritual emolument and profit by it that our souls may be “nourished up in the words of faith” (I Tim. 4:6). Why else was the scripture written but that it might profit us? God did not give us His word only as a landscape, to look upon; but He delivered it to us, as a father delivers a stock of money to his son to improve. It is sad not to profit by the word, to be like a body in an atrophy that doth not thrive: men would be loath to trade, and get no profit.
The grand question I am to speak to is this: How we may read the scriptures with most spiritual profit. It is a momentous question and of daily use.
For the resolution of this question, I shall lay down several rules or directions about reading of scripture.
If you would profit by reading, remove those things which will hinder your profiting.–That the body may thrive, obstructions must be removed. There are three obstructions [that] must be removed, if you would profit by scripture:
1. Remove the love of every sin.–Let a physician prescribe never so good receipts, if the patient takes poison, it will hinder the virtue and operation of the physic. The scripture prescribes excellent receipts; but sin lived-in poisons all. The body cannot thrive in a fever; nor can the soul, under the feverish heat of lust.. As the rose is destroyed by the canker which breeds in it so are the souls of men by those sins they live in.
2. Take heed of the thorns which will choke the word read.–These thorns our Saviour expounds to be “the cares of the world” (Matt. 13:22). by “cares” is meant covetousness. A covetous man is a pluralist; he hath such diversity of secular employments, that he can scarce find time to read; or if he doth what solecisms doth he commit in reading! While his eye is upon the Bible, his heart is upon the world; it is not the writings of the apostles he is so much taken with, as the writings in his account-book. Is this man likely to profit? You may as soon extract oils and syrups out of a flint as he any real benefit out of scripture.
3. Take heed of jesting with scripture.–This is playing with fire. Some cannot be merry unless they make bold with God. When they are sad they bring forth the scripture as their harp to drive away the evil spirit. As that drunkard who having drunk off his cups, called to his fellows, “Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out.” In the fear of God beware of this. King Edward IV would not endure to have his crown jested with, but caused him to be executed who said he would make his son heir to the crown, meaning the sign of the crown: much less will God endure to have his word jested with. The Lord may justify giving over such persons “to a reprobate mind.” (Rom. 1:28).
If you would profit prepare your hearts to the reading of the word.–The heart is an instrument [that] needs putting in tune. “Prepare your hearts unto the Lord” (I Sam. 7:3). This preparation to reading consists in two things:
1. In summoning our thoughts together to attend that solemn work we are going about.–The thoughts are stragglers; therefore rally them together.
2. In purging out those unclean affections which do indispose us to reading.–The serpent, before he drinks, casts up his poison. In this we should be “wise as serpents” (Matt. 10:16); before we come to these “waters of life”, [we should] cast away the poison of impure afections. Many come rashly to the reading of the word; and no wonder, if they come without preparation, [that] they go away without profit.
Read the scripture with reverence.–Think every line you read God is speaking to you. The ark, wherein the law was put, was overlaid with pure gold, and was carried on bars, that the Levites might not touch it (see Ex. 25:10-15). Why was this, but to breed in the people reverence to the law? When Ehud told Eglon he had a message to him from God, he arose from his throne (see Judg. 3:20). The word written is a message to us from Jehovah; with what veneration should we receive it!
Get a right understanding of scripture.– “Give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments” (Ps. 119:73). Though there are some knots in scripture, which are not easily untied; yet things essential to salvation the Holy Ghost hath plainly pointed out to us. The knowledge of the sense of scripture is the first step to profiting. In the law Aaron was first to light the lamps, and then to burn the incense: the lamp of the understanding must be first lighted, before the affections can be inflamed. Get what knowledge you can by comparing scriptures, by conferring with others, by using the best annotators. Without knowledge, the scripture is a sealed book; every line is too high for us; …
Read the word with seriousness.– ” And well may we be serious, if we consider the importance of those truths which are bound up in this sacred volume. “It is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life” (Deut. 32:47). If a letter were to be broken open and read, wherein a man’s whole estate were concerned, how serious would he be in reading of it! In the scripture our salvation is concerned; it treats of the love of Christ, a serious subject (see Titus 3:4). The Christ loved us more than His own life; nay, though we had a hand in His death, yet that He should not leave us out of His will, this is a love “which passeth knowledge” (Eph. 3:19). Who can read this without seriousness? The scripture speaks of the mystery of faith, the eternal recompences, the paucity of them that shall be saved: “Few chosen” (Matt. 20:16). [The scripture speaks of “striving” for heaven as in an agony (Luke 13:24); it cautions us of falling short of the “promised rest” (Heb. 4:1); it describes the horror of the infernal torments, “the worm and the fire” (Mark 9:44). Who can read this, and not be serious? Some have light, feathery spirits; they run over the most weighty truths in haste; …and they are not benefited by the word. Read with a solemn, composed spirit. Seriousness is the Christian’s ballast, which keeps him from being overturned with vanity.
Labour to remember what you read.–Satan would steal the word out of our mind (see Matt. 13:4,19); not that he intends to make use of it himself, but lest we should make use of it. The memory should be like the chest in the ark, where the law was put. “I have remembered thy judgments of old” (Ps. 119:52). We are bid to have the “word dwell in” us (Col. 3:16). The word is a jewel that adorns the hidden man; and shall we not remember it? “Can a maid forget her ornaments?” (Jer. 2:32). Such as have a disease they call lienteria [in which] the meat comes up as fast as they eat it, and stays not in the stomach are not nourished by it. If the word stays not in the memory, it cannot profit. Some can better remember a piece of news than a line of scripture; their memories are like those ponds, where the frogs live, but the fish die.
Meditate upon what you read.– “I will meditate in thy precepts” (Ps. 119:15). The Hebrew word [for] “meditate” signifies, “to be intense in the mind.” In meditation there must be a fixing of the thoughts upon the object: the Virgin Mary “pondered” those things, &c. (see Luke 2:19). Meditation is the concoction of scripture: reading and meditation must, like Castor and Pollux appear together. Meditation without reading is erroneous; reading without meditation is barren. The bee sucks the flower, then works it in the hive, and so turns it to honey: by reading we suck the flower of the word, by meditation we work it in the hive of our mind, and so it turns to profit. Meditation is the bellows of the affections: “While I was musing the fire burned” (Ps. 39:3). The reason we come away so cold from reading the word is because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation.
Come to the reading of scripture with humble hearts.– Acknowledge how unworthy you are that God should reveal Himself in His word to you. God’s secrets are with the humble: pride is an enemy to profiting. It is observed [that] the ground on which the peacock sits is barren: that heart where pride sits is barren. An arrogant person disdains the counsels of the word, and hates the reproofs; is he likely to profit? “God giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6). The eminentest saints have been but of low stature in their own eyes; like the sun in the zenith they showed least when they were at the highest. David had “more understanding than all his teachers” (Ps. 119:99). But how humble was he!