A Classic Study by Thomas Watson(c. 1620-1686)
This is the final article in 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, a seventeenth century pastor and teacher. The main bulk of this study consists of directions on how to approach reading the Bible. In the first part, the following directions were given:
I. Remove those things which will hinder your profiting from reading scripture.
II. Prepare your hearts for the reading of the Word.
III. Read the scripture with reverence.
IV. Read the books of scripture in order.
V. Get a right understanding of scripture.
VI. Read the word with seriousness.
VII. Labor to remember what you read.
VIII. Meditate upon what you read.
IX. Come to the reading of scripture with humble hearts.
X. Give credence to the word written.
XI. Highly prize the scriptures.
XII. Get an ardent love for the Word.
Now here, we continue this study. 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).[Footnote #8]
DIRECTION XIII. Come to the reading of the word with honest hearts.--Christ speaks of "the honest heart" (Luke 8:15).
QUESTION. "What is it to read the word with an honest heart?"
ANSWER 1. To come with an heart willing to know the whole counsel of God.--A good heart would not have any truth concealed; but saith, as Job, "That which I see not, teach thou me" (Job 34:32). When men pick and choose in religion, they will do some things the word enjoins them, but not others. These are unsound hearts, and are not benefited by holy writ. These are like a patient, who having a bitter pill prescribed, and a julep, he will take the julep, but refuseth the pill.
2. To read the word with an honest heart, is to read it that we may be made better by it.--The word is the medium and organ of sanctity; and we come to it not only to illuminate us, but consecrate us: "Sanctify them through thy truth" (John 17:17). Some go to the Bible, as one goes to the garden, to pick flowers, that is, fine notions. Austin confesseth, that before his conversion he went to hear Ambrose more for the elegancy of speech and quaintness of notion, than the spirituality of the matter. This is like a woman that paints her face, but neglects her health. But this is to have an honest heart, when we come to the scriptures as Naaman to the waters of Jordan, to be healed of our leprosy. "O," saith the soul, "that this sword of the Spirit may pierce the rock of my heart; that this blessed word may have such a virtue in it, as the water of jealousy, to kill and make fruitful (Num. 5:27-28); that it may kill my sin, and make me fruitful in grace."
DIRECTION XIV. Learn to apply scripture.--Take every word as spoken to yourselves. When the word thunders against sin, think thus: "God means my sins"; when it presseth any duty, "God intends me in this." Many put off scripture from themselves, as if it only concerned those who lived in the time when it was written; but if you intend to profit by the word, bring it home to yourselves: a medicine will do no good, unless it be applied. The saints of old took the word as if it had been spoken to them by name. When king Josiah heard the threatening which was written in the book of God, he applied it to himself: "He rent his clothes, and humbled" his soul "before the Lord" (II Kings 22:11,13).
DIRECTION XV. Observe the preceptive part of the word, as well as the promissive.--The precepts carry duty in them, like the veins which carry the blood; the promises carry comfort in them, like the arteries which carry the spirits. Make use as well of the precepts to direct you, as the promises to comfort you. Such as cast their eye upon the promise, with a neglect of the command, are not edified by scripture; they look more after comfort than duty. They mistake their comforts, as Apollo embraced the laurel-tree instead of Daphne. The body may be swelled with wind as well as flesh: a man may be filled with false comfort, as well as that which is genuine and real.
DIRECTION XVI. Let your thoughts dwell upon the most material passages of scripture.--The bee fastens on those flowers where she may suck most sweetness. Though the whole contexture of scripture is excellent, yet some parts of it may have a greater emphasis, and be more quick and pungent. Reading the names of the tribes, or the genealogies of the patriarchs, is not of the same importance as faith and "the new creature" (II Cor. 5:17). Mind the magnalia legis, the "weighty things of the law" (Hosea 8:12). They who read only to satisfy their curiosity, do rather busy than profit themselves. The searching too far into Christ's temporal reign hath, I fear, weakened his spiritual reign in some men's hearts.
DIRECTION XVII. Compare yourselves with the word.--See how the scripture and your hearts agree, how your dial goes with this sun. Are your hearts, as it were, a transcript and counterpane of scripture? Is the word copied out into your hearts? The word calls for humility; are you not only humbled, but humble? The word calls for regeneration (John 3:7); have you the signature and engraving of the Holy Ghost upon you? Have you a change of heart? Not only a partial moral change, but a spiritual? Is there such a change wrought in you, as if another soul did live in the same body? "Such were some of you; but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified," etc. (I Cor. 6:11). The word calls for love to the saints (I Peter 1:22); do you love grace where you see it? Do you love grace in a poor man as well as in a rich? A son loves to see his father's picture, though hung in a mean frame; do you love grace, though mixed with some failings, as we love gold, though it be in the ore? The bringing the rule of the word and our hearts together, to see how they agree, would prove very advantageous to us. Hereby we come to know the true complexion and state of our souls, and see what evidences and certificates we have for heaven.
DIRECTION XVIII. Take special notice of those scriptures which speak to your particular case.--Were a consumptive person to read Galen or Hippocrates, he would chiefly observe what they writ about a consumption. Great regard is to be had to those paragraphs of scripture, which are most apposite to one's present case. I shall instance only in three cases: 1. Affliction. 2. Desertion. 3. Sin.
CASE I. First, Affliction.--Hath God made your chain heavy? Consult these scriptures: "If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as sons" (Heb. 12:7; See also Job 36:8-9; Deut. 8:15; I Kings 11:39; Ps. 89:30-33; Heb. 12:10-11; Ps. 37:39; Rom. 8:28; I Pet. 1:6-7; II Chron. 33:11-13; Rev. 3:19; II Cor. 4:16; Job 5:17; Micah 6:9). "By this shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged; and this is all the fruit to take away his sin" (Isa. 27:9). "Your sorrow shall be turned into joy" (John 16:20). The French have a berry, which they call uve de spine, "the grape of a thorn". God gives joy out of sorrow; here is the grape of a thorn: "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (II Cor. 4:17). The limner lays his gold upon dark colours: God first lays the dark colour of affliction, and then the golden colour of glory.
CASE II. Secondly, Desertion.--Are your spiritual comforts eclipsed? "In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment: but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee" (Isa. 54:8. See also Lam. 3:31-33; Ps. 106:6,9; 103:9; Mark 15:34; Isa. 8:17; 49:15; 50:10; 54:10; II Cor. 7:6). The sun may hide itself in a cloud, but it is not out of the firmament; God may hide his face, but he is not out of covenant. "I will not be always wroth: for the spirit should fail before me, and the souls which I have made" (Isa. 57:16). God is like the musician, He will not stretch the strings of His lute too hard lest they break. "Light is sown for the righteous" (Ps. 97:11). A saint's comfort may be hid as seed under the clods, but at last it will spring up into an harvest of joy.
CASE III. Thirdly, Sin.--1. Are you drawn away with lust? Read Gal. 5:24; James 1:15; I Peter 2:11: "Abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul." Lust kills the embracing. "There met him a woman with the attire of an harlot. He goeth after her straightway, as an ox goeth to the slaughter; till a dart strike through his liver," etc. (Prov. 7:10,22,23). "The mouth of strange women is a deep pit: he that is abhorred of the Lord shall fall therein" (Prov. 22:14). Go to the waters of the sanctuary to quench the fire of lust.
2. Are you under the power of unbelief?--Read Isa. 26:3: "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in Thee." Mr. Bolton speaks of a distressed soul who found much comfort from this scripture on his sick bed: "The word of the Lord is tried: He is a buckler to all them that trust in Him" (II Sam. 22:31. See also Zeph. 3:12; Ps. 34:22; 55:22; 32:10; Mark 9:23; I Peter 5:7). "That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish" (John 3:15). Unbelief is a God-affronting sin: "He that believeth not God, hath made him a liar" (I John 5:10). It is a soul-murdering sin: "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him" (John 3:36). Thus, in reading observe those scriptures which do rem acu tangere, "touch upon your particular case". Although all the Bible must be read; yet those texts which point most directly to your condition, be sure to put a special star upon.
DIRECTION XIX. Take special notice of the examples in scripture.--Make the examples of others living sermons to you.
1. Observe the examples of God's judgments upon sinners.--They have been hanged up in chains in terrorem. How severely hath God punished proud men! Nebuchadnezzar was turned to grass, Herod eaten up with vermin. How hath God plagued idolaters! (See Num. 25:3-5,9; I Kings 14:9-11). What a swift witness hath He been against liars! (See Acts 5:5,10). These examples are set-up as sea-marks to avoid. (See I Cor. 10:11; Jude 7).
2. Observe the examples of God's mercy to saints.--Jeremiah was preserved in the dungeon, the three children in the furnace, Daniel in the lion's den. These examples are props to faith, spurs to holiness.
DIRECTION XX. Leave not off reading in the Bible till you find your hearts warmed.-- "I will never forget thy precepts: for with them thou hast quickened me" (Ps. 119:93). Read the word, not only as a history, but labour to be affected with it. Let it not only inform you, but inflame you. "`Is not my word like as a fire?' saith the Lord" (Jer. 23:29). Go not from the word till you can say as those disciples, "Did not our heart burn within us?" (Luke 24:32).
DIRECTION XXI. Set upon the practice of what you read.-- "I have done Thy commandments" (Ps. 119:166). A student in physic doth not satisfy himself to read over a system or body of physic, but he falls upon practising physic: the life-blood of religion lies in the practice part. So, in the text: "He shall read" in the book of the law "all the days of his life: that he may learn to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them" (Deut. 17:19). Christians should be walking Bibles. Xenophon said, "Many read Lycurgus's laws, but few observe them." The word written is not only a rule of knowledge, but a rule of obedience: it is not only to mend our sight, but to mend our pace. David calls God's word "a lamp unto his feet" (Ps. 119:105). It was not only a light to his eyes to see by, but to his feet to walk by. By practice we trade the talent of knowledge, and turn it to profit. This is a blessed reading of scripture, when we fly from the sins which the word forbids, and espouse the duties which the word commands. Reading without practice will be but a torch to light men to hell.
DIRECTION XXII. Make use of Christ's prophetical office.--He is "the Lion of the tribe of Judah," to whom it is given "to open the book" of God, "and to loose the seven seals thereof" (Rev. 5:5). Christ doth so teach as He doth quicken. "I am the light of the world: He that followeth me shall have," lumen vitae, "the light of life" (John 8:12). The philosopher saith, "Light and heat increase together." It is true here: where Christ comes into the soul with his light, there is the heat of spiritual life going along with it. Christ gives us spiritualem gustum, "a taste of the word": "Thou has taught me. How sweet are thy words unto my taste!" (Ps. 119:102,103). It is one thing to read a promise, another thing to "taste" it. Such as would be scripture-proficients, let them get Christ to be their teacher. "Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures" (Luke 24:45). Christ did not only open the scriptures, but "opened their understanding".
DIRECTION XXIII. Trend often upon the threshold of the sanctuary.--Wait diligently on a rightly-constituted ministry: "Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching diligently at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors" (Prov. 8:34). Ministers are God's interpreters; it is their work to expound and open dark places of scripture. We read of their work to expound and open dark places of scripture. We read of "pitchers, and lamps within the pitchers" (Judges 7:16). Ministers are "earthen" pitchers (II Cor. 4:7). But these pitchers have lamps within them, to light souls in the dark.
DIRECTION XXIV. Pray that God will make you profit.-- "I am the Lord thy God, which teacheth thee to profit" (Isa. 48:17). Make David's prayer: "Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law" (Ps. 119:18). Pray to God to take off the veil on the scripture, that you may understand it; and the veil on your heart, that you may believe it. Pray that God will not only give you His word as a rule of holiness, but His grace as a principle of holiness. Implore the guidance of God's Spirit: "Thou gavest them Thy good Spirit to instruct them" (Neh. 9:20). Though the ship hath a compass to sail by, and store of tackling, yet without a gale of wind it cannot sail. Though we have the word written as our compass to sail by, and make use of our endeavours as the tackling, yet, unless the Spirit of God blow upon us, we cannot sail with profit. When the Almighty is as "dew" unto us, then we "grow as the lily," and our "beauty is as the olive-tree" (Hos. 14:5,6). Beg the anointing of the Holy Ghost (see I John 2:20). One may see the figures on a dial, but he cannot tell how the day goes unless the sun shine: we may read many truths in the Bible, but we cannot know them savingly till God's Spirit shine in our souls (see II Cor. 4:16). The Spirit is "a Spirit of wisdom and revelation" (Eph. 1:17). When Philip joined himself to the eunuch's chariot, then he understood scripture (see Acts 8:29-35). When God's Spirit joins Himself to the word, then it will be effectual to salvation.
These rules observed, the word written would, through God's blessing, be "an engrafted word" (James 1:21). A good scion grafted into a bad stock changeth the nature of it, and makes it bear sweet and generous fruit; so when the word is grafted savingly into men's hearts, it doth sanctify them, and make them bring forth the sweet "fruits of righteousness" (Phil. 1:11).
Thus I have answered this question, How we may read the scriptures with most spiritual profit.
I shall conclude all with two corollaries:--
1. Content not yourselves with the bare reading of scripture, but labour to find some spiritual increment and profit.--Get the word transcribed into your hearts: "The law of his God is in his heart" (Ps. 37:31). Never leave till you are assimilated into the word. Such as profit by reading of the book of God are the best Christians alive; they answer God's cost, they credit religion, they save their souls.
2. You who have profited by reading the holy scriptures, adore God's distinguishing grace.--Bless God that He hath not only brought the light to you, but opened your eyes to see it; that He hath unlocked His hid treasure, and enriched you with saving knowledge. Some perish by not having scripture, and others by not improving it. That God should pass by millions in the world, and the lot of his electing love should fall upon you; that the scripture, like the pillar of cloud, should have a dark side to others, but a light side to you; that to others it should be a "dead letter," but to you the "savour of life"; that Christ should not only be revealed to you, but in you (see Gal. 1:16); how should you be in an holy ecstasy of wonder, and wish that you had hearts of seraphim burning in love to God, and the voices of angels, make heaven ring with God's praises!
OBJECTION. But some of the godly may say, they fear they do not profit by the word they read.
RESPONSE. As in the body, when there is a lipothymy or "fainting of the vital spirits", cordials are applied: so let me apply a few diving cordials to such as are ready to faint under the fear of non-proficiency.
1. You may profit by reading the word, though you come short of others.--The ground which brought forth but thirty-fold was "good ground" (Matt. 13:8). Say not you are non-proficients, because you do not go in equipage with other eminent saints: those were counted strong men among David's worthies, though they did not attain to the honour of the first three (see II Sam. 23:19,22,23).
2. You may profit by reading the word, though you are not of so quick apprehension.--Some impeach themselves of non-proficiency, because they are but slow of understanding. When our blessed Savior foretold His sufferings, the apostles themselves "understood not, and it was hid from them" (Luke 9:45). The author to the Hebrews speaks of some who were "dull of hearing" (Heb. 5:11); yet they belonged to election. Such as have weaker judgments may have stronger affections. Leah was tender-eyed, yet fruitful. A Christian's intellectuals may be less quick and penetrating, yet that little knowledge he hath of scripture keeps him from sin; as a man that hath but weak sight, yet it keeps him from falling into the water.
3. You may profit by reading scripture, though you have not so excellent memories.--Many complain their memories leak. Christian, art thou grieved thou canst remember no more? Then, for thy comfort,
(1.) Thou mayest have a good heart, though thou hast not so good a memory.
(2.) Though thou canst not remember all thou readest, yet thou rememberest that which is most material, and which thou hast most need of.--At a feast we do not eat of every dish, but we take so much as nourisheth. It is with a good Christian's memory as it is with a lamp: though the lamp be not full of oil, yet it hath so much oil as makes the lamp burn: though thy memory be not full of scripture, yet thou retainest so much as makes thy love to God burn. Then be of good comfort; thou dost profit by what thou readest; and take notice of that encouragion scripture: "The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, He shall bring all things to your remembrance" (John 14:26).