Methods of Study
1. Daily Bible Reading
First of all in importance, and no doubt in I the practice of the majority of God's people, we place the daily, regular reading of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, repeatedly and throughout life. Often, men of much knowledge of different portions of Scripture, quite familiar perhaps with the original tongues, show the greatest ignorance of the simple historical facts narrated throughout the Bible, together with an evident unfamiliarity with the whole manner of Scripture. No words of ours can express too strongly the absolute importance of having the mind and heart thoroughly saturated with the knowledge of the letter of Scripture from beginning to end. Nothing really in the way of Bible knowledge can take the place of this. It is the broad foundation upon which the superstructure of subsequent detail must rest; and if this foundation is not broad and deep, the superstructure, no matter how high and intricate, will lack in stability.
Ruskin, the great master of English, and in many ways a remarkable man, declared that the most valuable part of his education was in the letter of the Bible, he having been compelled from early childhood to read a number of chapters regularly every day, and when he had completed the book, to start afresh. Always bearing in mind what we said at the beginning, that a spiritual knowledge of the Scriptures is absolutely indispensable; and speaking now simply of what is before us, the methods of Bible study, we desire to reiterate with emphasis the necessity and importance of this daily reading.
Let us be very simple and explicit. In every Christian home there should be the reading of the word of God and prayer at least once a day. No matter how strenuous the life and busy, let nothing rob the family of this simple and most precious privilege. Let some hour be selected morning or evening, when the family can be gathered for a few minutes and a chapter be read carefully and attentively, either by one or in turn. The time consumed in this way is well spent and will in itself help to keep fresh in our mind, from early childhood, the great outstanding facts and truths of the precious word of God. It is probably better to begin with the Gospels and to go through the New Testament, then to take up the Old. Any one can make certain selections which would be perhaps more suited to the younger members of the family, and certain portions could be left for more private reading; but in the main it may be said that we should put honor upon God's precious Word by reading it throughout. Few indeed are the portions which will not yield edification when read in this way. Indeed, the less attractive portions will often be found to offer suggestions for profitable conversation, and serve to awaken and confirm the interest in the entire book.
In addition to the family reading, we speak next of the private reading by each one, of at least a single chapter every day. Here, too, it is well to follow the order suggested above and begin with the New Testament, and having finished that, to go to the Old. If but one chapter a day can be read, the entire Scriptures will have been gone over in the course of three years; and, similarly, two or three chapters a day will complete the entire book in a much shorter time. An attentive reading of an ordinary chapter will consume not more than ten minutes. Surely, the busiest life can find or take ten minutes for such a work as this.
Regularity and system are most important here. One can carefully study the duties and responsibilities of the day and devote a certain time, as far as possible, to this reading. We are creatures of habit, and when once it is a settled fact that our daily chapter or two is to be read, little difficulty will be found in carrying out the plan. Here, as in most of our spiritual conflicts, the victory is won in the heart, when the purpose is fully established before God of going on with His word. It is probably better, wherever possible, to be reading in two places, one in the Old and the other in the New Testament. Thus, in the morning, Matthew might be begun, and in the evening Genesis; and when each Testament is completed, turn back again with renewed zest to the first chapter.
In a life where there is a measure of leisure, there should not be the slightest difficulty in reading through the entire Scriptures at least once a year. Half an hour a day will easily accomplish this; and where one of the chapters is read in the family, it would leave but two others to be read alone.
Quite similar to the practice just recommended, and indeed a part of it, is the practice of reading a whole book through at a sitting. For instance, the gospel of Mark can be read as we would an article in a magazine, and in as short a time. It has been said that a little over one hour is sufficient for this. So, too, a little longer time would suffice for reading through either of the other Gospels or the Acts. In this way we get a good general idea of the contents of the book, much as a journey through a region of country enables us to form a fairly correct idea of its character.
This rapid survey reading, as we may call it, is also of much value as an introduction to the study of each of the Epistles. We read it through at a sitting, and then take it up more in detail.
The same may be said as to the Old Testament. The life of Abraham or of Joseph or of David could be read through in this way, giving us, as we would find, something more than the mere facts, the purpose of the Spirit as a whole, with reference to the life recorded.
So, too, each of the Prophets could be read at a sitting or two, giving us the main themes and general course of what was in the Spirit's mind. Such "quantity reading," as we may call it, should not be indulged in to the exclusion of the regular plodding along with the daily chapter or two, but could be introduced from time to time as a complete change, and, as we said, for the purposes of introductory study.
A word perhaps may be said as to the kind of Bible to be used. In this, individual taste and mental peculiarities must be considered. Some have a strong local memory and locate a passage from its position on the page. If one may speak for others, this is not a faculty particularly to be encouraged, because, should we be deprived of our usual Bible at any time, we may find ourselves rather helpless in handling a strange book. Wherever possible, it may be well to have two Bibles, one for outside use, such as at meetings or carried in the pocket with us, not too large; and another for the table at home. This latter may be an ordinary cheap book, which we do not hesitate to mark. Favorite verses, striking or difficult passages may be noted here without much reference to special neatness, while in the book which we preserve for more permanent use, the notes and markings are more carefully inserted.
A prominent lecturer used to suggest that one Bible could be used for marking and be completely filled in a year. This is probably quite unnecessary, but not many years will pass before a book can be so completely marked up that there will not be room for further insertions.
We are not going to spend much time over details here, but a few words as to Bible marking may not be out of place. Pen and ink are to be preferred rather than a lead pencil, whose marks are easily blurred. When once even pencil marks are put in a Bible they cannot well be erased,and therefore they might as well be put in the more permanent ink. In reading our daily morning chapter, for instance, we are struck with the beauty or appropriateness of some special sentence. This can be marked by a simple line at the side, or possibly underlined throughout. Perhaps some prominent words may be particularly underscored. For instance, in Genesis 1: we might draw a straight, black line under the first four words: "In the beginning, God." How many thoughts are suggested by this phrase! "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever Thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God." There, in the beginning, before an atom of the vast universe of His creation had been called out of nothingness, God was as He is, eternally the same. On the side of these words might be written the reference to John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word," giving the marvelous, blessed fact that He who became flesh and tabernacled amongst us in lowliness, to serve us in our need and to go to the cross for our sins, was none other than God, One who was daily with Him, delighting in Him, and whose delights were with the sons of men. Thus, we could easily add the reference to Prov. 8; and other passages of Scripture would naturally suggest themselves, so that before long we would have quite a number of Bible references on the margin opposite our first verse.
We are not, as has been said, giving more than a few obvious hints as to Bible marking. Every one will have his own system, but we would suggest that each one learn to make his own or additional references to parallel passages of Scripture which elucidate the text. This has been found most helpful and profitable.
As we read our chapter, there will sometimes be an obscure verse; for instance, Gal. 3:20: "Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one." We look at the connection and try to gather the meaning, but are not quite clear. We may possibly consult helps, or if these are wanting, or prove not entirely satisfactory, we put a simple "?" by the side of the verse or some other mark of interrogation. It would probably be well for us all if we inserted these question marks along our Bibles wherever we do not fully understand the thought. It would be interesting in our next reading to notice how many of these "?s" could now be dispensed with. In the meanwhile, our attention will have been riveted by the fact that we are asking ourselves, Do we understand what we are reading?
Further markings will suggest themselves. Later on, we will take up the subject of various versions and the originals. Our admirable English version will be found to be greatly improved in numbers of places by slight alterations in the translation of a word or phrase, or the removal of an evident interpolation, or an addition of something that has been omitted in the manuscript from which the translation was made. For instance, in Rom. 8:1, the last clause can be bracketed, having been introduced there from verse four, where it really belongs. The meaning is greatly clarified by this elimination which is authorized by the manuscript authorities. Thus, the great truth of "No condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus" stands unqualified by the walk, which is fully provided for in the subsequent verse.
In like manner, the passage in Col. 2:11 gathers fresh meaning and force when the words which have been interpolated are removed, making the passage read: "Putting off the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ," omitting the words "of the sins." Our Lord's death has not only put away the fruit, but condemned and set aside the very root which bore it.
In like manner, occasionally a word or phrase has been omitted from the text, as in Eph. 6:9, where the margin supplies the added thought that the Master in heaven is Lord both of servant and master. In 1 John 2:23, the latter half of the verse has justly been added, having been omitted from the comparatively recent manuscript from which the translation was made. These must suffice as illustrations of what will prove a most helpful exercise.
We may say in general that markings which have to do with the text itself, along the lines thus suggested, could be put as neatly as possible in the copy which we keep for permanent use. Our table Bible can receive various notes and markings which would soon overrun the limited margins at our disposal. It may be well also to remind our readers that for marking Oxford India, or nearly all paper used in book printing, India ink is indispensable. This, with a fine "Crow-quill" pen and perhaps a small ruler, are all that is needed mechanically.
At the risk of repetition, we speak a further word as to the necessity for regularity and system in the work of Bible reading. Let it be settled before God, of course not in a legal way, but in the liberty of true love, that we must and shall read our Bibles regularly and systematically. Let us give them the first place, — if possible, a few minutes in the morning when the mind is fresh, and it will probably help in giving tone to the mental system for the entire day, even if we rise a few minutes earlier in order to devote from five to fifteen minutes to what will become an ever-increasing delight if we go on with God.
It is astonishing how much of what we read at this time will go with us during the day. Unknown to ourselves, we will be turning over what has been read; probably will find occasion to speak of it to others, and in various ways find that it is becoming a part of our mental and spiritual equipment. Let us not expect to see great results from the practice of a single day or week, but continue steadfastly on, not overtaxing ourselves by devoting too much time in our endeavoring to "catch up" that which we have inevitably lost. God is not a hard Master and His service is perfect freedom. It will be found that we would as soon think of being deprived of our daily food as of missing what is of far more importance.
Later on, we will endeavor to prepare illustrative schedules of Bible reading and study for different classes of readers, on the basis of from fifteen minutes' daily work to two hours'. This, however, can best be deferred for the present.