A Classic Study by Thomas Watson(c. 1620-1686)
This is part one of a two-part classic study on the right way to approach the reading of the Bible, God's Holy Word. The author is Thomas Watson, who also wrote the classic study on "Obedience". May the Lord bless you as you read and apply this study.
How We May Read the Scriptures
with Most Spiritual Profit
"And 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." (Deut. 17:19).
What Cicero said of Aristotle's Politics, may not unfitly be said of this Book of Deuteronomy: "It is full of golden eloquence." In this chapter God instructs the people of the Jews about setting a king over them. And there are two things specified in order to their king:
1. His election.
2. His religion.
1. His election.-- "Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose." (Deut. 17:15). Good reason God should have the choice of their king seeing "by Him kings reign" (Prov. 8:15).
2. His religion.-- "When he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites" (Deut. 17:18). Here was a good beginning of a king's reign: the first thing he did after he sat upon the throne was to copy out the word of God in a book. And in the text: "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" (Deut. 17:19). It shall be with him--The book of the law shall be his vade mecum, or daily companion. Charles the Great used to set his crown upon the Bible. Indeed the Bible is the best supporter of the crown. And he shall read therein--It is not below the majesty of a prince to peruse the oracles of heaven: in them are comprised sacred apophthegms: "I will speak of excellent things" (Prov. 8:6). In the Septuagint, it is "grave things"; in the Hebrew, "princely things"; such as are fit for a God to speak and a king to read. Nor must the king only read the book of the law at his first instalment into his kingdom, but he shall read therein all the days of his life. He must not leave off reading till he left off reigning. And the reasons why he must be conversant in the law of God are in the subsequent words: (1.) "That he may learn to fear the Lord his God." Reading of the word is the best means to usher-in the fear of the Lord. (2.) "That he may keep all the words of this law, to do them." (3.) "That he may prolong his days in his kingdom" (Deut. 17:20).
I shall now confine myself to these words: "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. Trajan the emperor forbade the Jews to read in the book of the law. Let us inquire at this sacred oracle. Apollos was "mighty in the scriptures" (Acts 18:24). Melancthon, when he was young, sucked "the sincere milk of the word." Alphonsus, king of Arragon, read over the Bible fourteen times. That Roman lady Cecilia had, by much reading of the word made her breast bibliothecam Christi, "the library of Christ", 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. The very Turks will rise up in judgment against these Christians: they reverence the books of Moses; and if they find but a leaf wherein any thing of the Pentateuch is written, they take it up and kiss it. 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.
QUESTION. 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.
RESPONSE. For the resolution of this question, I shall lay down several rules or directions about reading of scripture.
DIRECTION I. 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. Plato calls the love of sin magnus daemon, "a great devil". 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. Eusebius relates of one who took a piece of scripture to jest with, [that] God struck him with frenzy. The Lord may justify giving over such persons "to a reprobate mind." (Rom. 1:28).
DIRECTION II. 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). The Heathens (as Plutarch notes) thought it indecent to be too hasty or rash in the service of their supposed deities. 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.
DIRECTION III. 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!
DIRECTION IV. Read the books of scripture in order.--Though occurrences may sometimes divert our method, yet for a constant course it is best to observe an order in reading. Order is an help to memory: we do not begin to read a friend's letter in the middle.
DIRECTION V. 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; and if the word shoot above our head, it can never hit our heart.
DIRECTION VI. Read the word with seriousness.-- "If one go over the scripture cursorily," saith Erasmus, "there is little good to be got by it; but if he be serious in reading of it, it is the `savour of life.'" 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 Christ, a serious subject (see Titus 3:4). Christ hath loved mankind more than angels that fell (see Heb. 2:16). The loadstone, despising the gold and pearl, draws the iron to it: thus Christ passed by the angels, who were of a more noble extract, and drew mankind to him. 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). [Vopiscus] saith, the names of all the good emperors of Rome might be engraven in a little ring. There are but a few names in the book of life. 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; like Israel, who ate the passover 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.
DIRECTION VII. 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). Jerome writes of that religious lady Paula, that she had got most of the scriptures by heart. 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.
DIRECTION VIII. 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.
DIRECTION IX. 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! "I am a worm, and no man" (Ps. 22:6). David in the Arabic tongue signifies a "worm".
DIRECTION X. Give credence to the word written.--Believe it to be of God; see the name of God in every line. The Romans, that they might gain credit to their laws, reported that they were inspired by the gods at Rome. Believe the scripture to be coelo missa, "divinely inspired". "All scripture is of divine inspiration" (II Tim. 3:16). Who but God could reveal the great doctrines of the Trinity, the hypostatical union, the resurrection? Whence should the scripture come, if not from God?: 1. Sinners could not be the authors of scripture. Would they indite such holy lines? or inveigh so fiercely against those sins which they love? 2. Saints could not be the authors of scripture. How could it stand with their sanctity to counterfeit God's name, and put "Thus saith the Lord" to a book of their own devising? 3. Angels could not be the authors of scripture. What angel in heaven durst personate God, and say, "I am the Lord"? Believe the pedigree of scripture to be sacred, and to come from the "Father of lights" (James 1:17). The scripture's antiquity speaks its divinity. No human histories extant reach further than Noah's flood; but the scripture writes of things before time. Besides, the majesty, profundity, purity, harmony, of scripture show it could be breathed from none but God Himself. Add to this the efficacy the word written hath had upon men's consciences. By reading scripture they have been turned into other men; as might be instanced in St. Austin, Junius, and others. If you should set a seal upon a piece of marble, and it should leave a print behind, you would say there was a strange virtue in that seal: so, that the word written should leave a heavenly print of grace upon the heart it argues it to be of divine authority. If you would profit by the word, believe it to be of God. Some sceptics question the verity of scripture; though they have articles of religion in their "creed", yet not in their belief. "Who hath believed our report?" (Isa. 53:1). Unbelief enervates the virtue of the word and makes it abortive: who will obey those truths he doth not believe? "The word did not profit them, not being mixed with faith" (Heb. 4:2).
DIRECTION XI. Highly prize the scriptures.-- "The law of thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver" (Ps. 119:72). Can he make a proficiency in any art, who doth slight and deprecate it? Prize this book of God above all other books. St. Gregory calls the Bible "the heart and soul of God". The rabbins say, that there is a mountain of sense hangs upon every apex and tittle of scripture. "The law of the Lord is perfect" (Ps. 19:7). The scripture is the library of the Holy Ghost; it is a pandect of divine knowledge, an exact model and platform of religion. The scripture contains in it the credenda, "the things which we are to believe", and the agenda, "the things which we are to practice". It is "able to make us wise unto salvation" (II Tim. 2:15). The scripture is the standard of truth, the judge of controversies; it is the pole-star to direct us to heaven (see Isa. 8:20). "The commandment is a lamp" (Prov. 6:23). The scripture is the compass by which the rudder of our will is to be steered; it is the field in which Christ, the Pearl of price, is hid; it is a rock of diamonds; it is a sacred collyrium, or "eye-salve"; it mends their eyes that look upon it; it is a spiritual optic-glass in which the glory of God is resplendent; it is the panacy of "universal medicine" for the soul. The leaves of scripture are like the "leaves of the tree of life, for the healing of the nations" (Rev. 22:2). The scripture is both the breeder and feeder of grace. How is the convert born, but by "the word of truth"? (James 1:18). How doth he grow, but by "the sincere milk of the word"? (I Peter 2:2). The word written is the book out of which our evidences for heaven are fetched; it is the sea-mark which shows us the rocks of sin to avoid; it is the antidote against error and apostasy, the two-edged sword which wounds the old serpent. It is our bulwark to withstand the force of lust; like the Capitol of Rome, which was a place of strength and ammunition. The scripture is the "tower of David", whereon the shields of our faith hang (Song of Sol. 4:4). "Take away the word, and you deprive us of the sun," said Luther. The word written is above an angelic embassy, or voice from heaven. "This voice which came from heaven we heard. We have also a more sure word" (II Peter 1:18,19). O, prize the word written; prizing is the way to profiting. If Caesar so valued his Commentaries, that for preserving them he lost his purple robe, how should we estimate the sacred oracles of God? "I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food" (Job 23:12). King Edward the Sixth, on the day of his coronation had presented before him three swords, signifying that he was monarch of three kingdoms. The king said there was one sword wanting: being asked what that was, [he] answered, "The Holy Bible, which is the sword of the Spirit, and is to be preferred before these ensigns of royalty." Robert king of Sicily did so prize God's word, that, speaking to his friend Petrarcha, he said, "I protest, the scriptures are dearer to me than my kingdom; and if I must be deprived of one of them, I had rather lose my diadem than the scriptures."
DIRECTION XII. Get an ardent love to the word.--Prizing relates to the judgment, love to the affections. "Consider how I love thy precepts" (Ps. 119:159; Rom. 7:22). He is likely to grow rich who delights in his trade; he who is "a lover of learning will be a scholar". St. Austin tells us, before his conversion he took no pleasure in the scriptures, but afterwards they were his "chaste delights". David tasted the word "sweeter than the honey which drops from the comb" (Ps. 19:10). Thomas a Kempis used to say, he found no content but to be in angulo cum libello, "in a corner, with the book of God in his hand." Did Alphonsus king of Sicily recover of a fit of sickness with that great pleasure he took in reading of Quintus Curtius? What infinite pleasure should we take in reading the book of life! There is enough in the word to breed holy complacency and delight; it is a specimen and demonstration of God's love to us. The Spirit is God's love-token, the word his love-letter. How doth one delight to read over his friend's letter! The word written is a divine treasury or storehouse; in it are scattered truths as pearls, to adorn "the hidden man of the heart." The word written is the true manna, which hath all sorts of sweet taste in it; it is a sovereign elixir it "gives wine to them of an heavy heart." I have read of an ancient rabbi, who in a great concourse of people made proclamation of a sovereign cordial he had to sell: many resorting to him, and asking him to show it, he opened the Bible, and directed them to several places of comfort in it. Holy David drank of this cordial. "This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me" (Ps. 119:50). St. Chrysostom compares the scripture to a garden; every line in it is a fragrant flower, which we should wear, not in our bosom, but our heart. Delight in the word causeth profit: and we must not only love the comforts of the word, but the reproofs. Myrrh is bitter to the palate, but good for the stomach.
(This study concludes with Part II)