Helpful Books for Bible Study
7. Hints as to Reading
At the close of our little book, we may be allowed to make a few suggestions as to reading in general, with special reference to literature helpful for Bible study and other matters connected with this.
1. In one sense it can be said that we are living in a book reading age, and yet perhaps never have books and their readers been so superficial as at present. A vast mass of periodic literature of the emptiest kind is absorbed by the reading public. In our large cities nearly every one, even children, reads the daily newspaper, gorged with its disgusting recitals of crime and scandal. Weekly periodicals of trashy fiction, with numberless magazines of the same character, tinctured with an occasional article on some sensible topic, form the staple of mental food for the vast majority. In addition to these, novels by the hundred are turned out and greedily devoured. Of all this we have little to say, except to remind our readers that it indicates the course of this world according to which we no longer walk.
We would seriously lay it upon our own heart and that of God's people, that such reading is not only in many cases positively injurious, implanting infidel notions and a worldly habit of thought, but creates a distaste for solid, mental food, and particularly for that which has to do with our eternal interests. If there were no other reason why the young Christian should abstain from literature of this character, this would be sufficient. Anything that makes the Bible distasteful, or makes it a task to read helpful books that explain it, can surely not be a friend to our souls' growth. It cannot be from God, and therefore must be from an opposite direction. We cannot as to these apply the Scripture: "Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him." We do not wish to be narrow or legal, but that is not the special danger of the times in which we are living. If refusing to be turned away from Christ to enjoy this sinful world going on to destruction be narrowness, then with all our soul, let us be narrow!
With the desire to avoid misunderstanding, we add a word: what we have said is not meant to put God's people under bondage; for instance, as to reading the news. The Christian can acquaint himself with what is taking place in the world, especially as showing its tendencies and the progress of events. However, a glance at the paper will suffice for this, and we must be on our guard, for many strong men have been ensnared in this direction.
There are a few books in which great epochs in the Church's history have been described in the form of a narrative, in which there are fictitious individuals. Some of these books may be profitable for the young in giving them a clear view of historical events. Some of them we would hesitate to condemn absolutely. We cannot say without qualification that fiction of every kind is evil, without including such books as these; but we do say most distinctly that fiction as a whole is evil and demoralizing, for the reasons just given above.
But enough of this distasteful subject. We must leave it with every one's conscience,asking them only, if given to reading of this character, to glance back over a year and recall all such books and literature they have read, to estimate how many pages it would make, how many hours it has taken, and then do the same with their Bible and helpful Christian literature, and compare the two. For those who might object that we had given too long a list of notes and comments on the Bible, it might be a surprise to learn that many a young man and woman reads thirty-five novels and more in the course of a year.
2. There are two ways of reading helpful books, neither of which can be commended, leaving a third, which we think is the normal and proper way. Some devour books; will take, for instance, a volume of C. H. M. and read it through in two days. To do this, they may sit up half the night or neglect some manifest domestic or business duties, or so encroach upon the time for independent Bible study that it is entirely neglected. When we come to the table, we do not eat everything that is put upon it at once and we have a mental as well as a physical capacity for receiving and assimilating nutrition. Beyond that, what we take will only gorge and hinder true mental and spiritual digestion.
Others fall into the opposite danger. A book is so long in hand that before the end is reached the beginning is forgotten: a page or two are read at intervals perhaps of two or three days; and while we do not say that much that is profitable is not gathered, yet there is no sense of progress and no positive accumulation of truth. The happy medium between these two extremes is doubtless the best. For instance, if we are reading the Notes on the Pentateuch, it might be done at the rate of a chapter a day, or at the same rate as we are reading in our Bibles. This has the double advantage of giving us leisure for the enjoyment of the portion in hand and of confirming and enlarging our understanding of the chapters we are reading. How delightful and profitable would such a systematic course through the Pentateuch be!
The other books suggested in the list could be taken up in a similar way, so that gradually one would have read over helpful expositions of the entire Scripture; we do not say as rapidly as they would have gone over the Bible, but perhaps in double that length of time.
This brings us to guard our reader from encroaching upon his time for study. Let that be kept inviolate, and if possible, be given in the early morning when one is freshest and least likely to be disturbed. Night study and late hours are to be avoided.
Some books, of course, are merely for reference, such as the dictionaries, concordances and even the outlines of which we have spoken above, with the one exception of the "Synopsis" which we would indeed advise to be read consecutively, at least once, along with the Scriptures.
Numbers of commentaries, if one has them within reach, can be consulted on special passages, but there is no profit in attempting to read through many helpful works of this character — indeed an impossible task. They are intended for reference.
Do not be afraid of marking books which are your own, and as such marks are rarely erased, they might as well be made with ink to avoid the blurring and soiling of the page. An intelligently marked book is of interest to others. It shows them that some one has been along this way before and does not really lessen the value of the book. These marks may vary, from simply calling attention to an interesting passage, or a question as to the correctness of a certain statement, to making extended remarks on the margin. A book of this kind may be for the time a sort of note-book in which all sorts of things that the author suggests to us are jotted down. Let not a borrowed book, however, be marked, even with a pencil. We would advise one, if possible, to purchase his own books, rather than to borrow those of others. Books are lifelong friends, and if one is worth reading it is worth possessing. Of course, we may not be able to buy them at once. Indeed, books which have cost some self-denial to secure have a special value, and if thus gradually obtained will be more likely to be read than if they are bought by the yard. Borrowed books should be returned as soon as practicable. It is neither good for oneself morally, nor just to others, to fail to return books that have been kindly loaned to us.
We have reached the end of what we set out to say upon this most important subject of Bible Study. We are quite aware that nothing very original or striking has been said, but if our little book shall result in encouraging beginners to take up their Bibles or stimulate those who are already happily thus engaged, it will not have been in vain. Its aim is to glorify our blessed Lord in the hearts of His people, and to seek Him, the living Word who was and is with God, and was and is God, in the pages of that written Word where everything speaks of Him. There is indeed a marked similarity between the person of our Lord Jesus Christ and the written word of God. The One is Divine and yet has become flesh, humiliating Himself so that He could be heard and seen and handled, a Man with a perfect human mind, heart, will, affections, all that goes to make up the ideal Man, yet in and above all this, with glory veiled only to unbelief, we see the living God. So with the Scriptures: in form they are human writings, the production of various authors, and with all the characteristics of times in which they were produced and the authors who produced them. Nothing is forced or cramped. A great genius evidently wrote the Pentateuch; true poets, of the highest order, evidently wrote the Psalms, the book of Job and the Prophets. Painstaking and discriminating historians evidently wrote the historical narratives; faithful and attentive biographers evidently wrote the Gospels; and a master genius, Paul, wrote his epistles. But underneath and above the human instrument, whether king or peasant, fisherman or poet, shines the Divine Mind, the inspiring Spirit, revealing in all its grandeur and perfection, the will, the ways, the holiness, the glory, the love of God, in the person of His Son.
We know God through His word, not merely intellectually, but as born, cleansed and nourished by that Word. We know Christ thus, also; and thus, in a special and real way, the written Word is the mind of the living, the Divine Word. May something of that longing which filled the heart of the apostle possess us also. As we press forward to see our Lord on high, may we also seek Him in His word, forgetting our past attainments which are behind, reaching forth to those that are before, and pressing forward ever for the prize which, while it is on high, awaits our reverent, diligent, persistent search in the precious word of God. Not that we shall ever be satisfied this side of heaven. Indeed, God's word is so perfect that we can never grasp all its fulness here, but we shall go on to know Him and the power of His resurrection, yea, and the fellowship of His sufferings too, in that measure in which His word fills mind and heart and possesses and controls our lives.
Courage, then, dear fellow-Christian, in this noble work! The few minutes you are putting on some little study morning by morning may seem a trifle; but, oh, the knowledge of Christ is not a trifle; the knowledge of the word of God is not a trifle. Let us then be diligent, simple, obedient and hopeful, and continue in this precious work!
"O how love I Thy law! it is my meditation all the day. Thou through Thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies, for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Thy precepts. I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep Thy word. I have not departed from Thy judgments, for Thou hast taught me. How sweet are Thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth. Through Thy precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way" (Ps. 119:97-104),