Honza Pokorny

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How we may read the Scriptures with the most spiritual profit

By Rev. Thomas Watson

“And it shall be with him, and he shall read it 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 to do these Statutes.” — Deut. 17.19.

What Cicero said of Aristotle’s politics, may not unfittingly be said of this book of Deuteronomy, it is full of golden eloquence. In this chapter, God instructs the Jews about setting a king over them, and there are two things specified, as to his election, and his religion.

I shall now confine myself to these words, “He shall read it all the days of his life;” i. e. the Book of the Law.

The Holy Scripture is, as Austin says, a golden epistle sent to us from God. This is to be read diligently; ignorance of Scripture is the mother of error, not of devotion. Matt, 22.29: “You err, not knowing the Scriptures.” We are commanded to “search the Scriptures.” John 5.39. The Greek word signifies to search as for a vein of silver. How diligently does a child read over his father’s will and testament! and a citizen peruse his charter! With like diligence we should read God’s word, which is our Magna Charta for Heaven. It is a mercy that 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 heart the Library of Christ, as Jerome relates. Were the Scriptures confined to the original tongues, many would plead an excuse for not reading; but when the sword of the Spirit 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 forbidden upon pain of death to taste of the tree of knowledge. Gen. 2.17: “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” But there is no danger of touching this tree of Holy Scripture; if we do not eat of this tree of knowledge we shall surely die. What will become of those who are strangers to the Scriptures? Hosea 8.12: “I have written to him the great things of my law, but they were considered as a strange thing.” Many lay aside the Scriptures like rusty armor. Jer. 8.9. “They are better-read in romances than in Paul; they spend many hours between the comb and the glass, but their eyes begin to be sore when they look at a Bible.” Even the Turks will rise up in judgment against these Christians. The Turks reverence the Books of Moses; and if they find just a leaf on which anything of the Pentateuch is written, they take it up and kiss it. Those who slight the written word, slight God himself, whose stamp it bears. To slight the king’s edict is an affront to the person of the king. Those who reject and vilify the Scriptures are in a state of condemnation. Prov. 13.13: “Whoever despises the word shall be destroyed.” Nor is it enough to read the word of God, but it should be our care to get some spiritual reward and profit by it, so that our souls may be nourished in the words of faith. 1Tim. 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 at, but he delivered it as a father delivers a stock of money to his son to improve on it. ‘Tis sad not to profit by the word, to be like the body in consumption, that does 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 the most spiritual profit. In answering this question, I shall lay down several rules or directions about the reading of Scripture.

1. If you would profit by reading, remove those things that 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.

2. If you would profit, prepare your hearts for reading the word; the heart is an instrument that needs to be tuned. 1Sam 7.3: “Prepare your hearts to the Lord.” The heathen, as Plutarch notes, thought it was indecent to be too hasty or rash in the service of their supposed deities. This preparation for reading consists in two things:

3. Read the Scriptures with reverence; think about every line you read; God is speaking to you. The ark in which the law was put, was overlaid with pure gold, and was carried on bars, so that the Levites might not touch it. Ex. 25, Why was this if not to breed in the people a reverence for the law? When Ehud told Eglon he had a message for him from God, Eglon arose from his throne. Judges 3.20, The written word is a message from Jehovah; we should receive it with that veneration.

4. Read the books of Scripture in order. Though circumstances may sometimes divert our method, yet, for a constant course, it is best to observe an order in reading. Order is a help to memory. We do not begin to read a friend’s letter in the middle.

5. Get a right understanding of Scripture. Psalm 119.73: “Give me understanding, that I may learn your commandments.” Though there are some knots in Scripture which are not easily untied, yet the Holy Ghost has plainly pointed out to us things essential to salvation. The knowledge of the sense of the Scriptures is the first step to profit. In the Law, Aaron was first to light the lamps, and then to burn the incense; the lamp of the understanding must first be lighted before the affections can be inflamed. Get what knowledge you can by comparing scriptures, by conferring with others, and by using the best annotators. Without knowledge, the Scripture is a sealed book; every line is too high for us; and if the word shoots above our head, it can never hit our heart.

6. Read the word with seriousness. If one goes over the Scripture cursorily, says Erasmus, there is little good to be got by it; but if he is serious in reading it, it is the savor of life; and we may well be serious if we consider the importance of those truths which are bound up in this sacred volume. Deut. 32.47: “It is not a vain thing for you; it is your life.” If a letter were to be opened and read, in which a man’s whole estate were concerned, how serious would he be in reading it? In the Scripture, our salvation is concerned; it addresses the love of Christ, a serious subject. Christ has loved mankind more than the angels that fell. Heb. 2.7. The loadstone, indifferent to gold and pearl, draws the iron to it; thus Christ passed by the angels, who were of more noble extraction, and drew mankind to himself. Christ loved us more than his own life; indeed, though we had a hand in his death, yet he would not leave us out of his will. This is a love that passes knowledge; who can read this without seriousness? The Scripture speaks of the mystery of faith, the eternal recompenses, and the paucity of those who shall be saved. Matt. 20.16: “Few chosen.” Someone said the names of all the good emperors of Rome might be engraved in a little ring; and there are but (comparatively) few names in the Book of Life. The Scripture speaks of striving for heaven as in an agony. Luke 13.24. It cautions us not to fall short of the promised rest. Heb. 4.1. It describes the horrors 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 so 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.

7. Labor to remember what you read. Satan would steal the word out of our mind; 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 ark was put. Psa 119.52: “I remembered your judgments of old.”

Jerome speaks of that religious lady, Paula, that she knew most of the Scriptures by heart; we are bid to have “the word dwell in us.” Col. 3.16, The word is a jewel; it adorns the hidden man, and shall we not remember it? If the word does not stay 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.

8. Meditate upon what you read. Psalm 119.15: “I will meditate on your precepts.” The Hebrew word to meditate, signifies to be intense in the mind. In meditation there must be a fixing of the thoughts upon the object. Luke 2.19: “Mary pondered those things.” Meditation is the concoction of Scripture; reading brings a truth into our head, meditation brings it into our heart; reading and meditation, like Castor and Pollux, must appear together. Meditation without reading is erroneous; reading without meditation is barren. The bee sucks the flower, and then works it into the hive, and so turns it into honey. By reading, we suck the flower of the word; and by meditation, we work it into the hive of our mind, and so it turns to our profit. Meditation is the bellows of the affection. Psalm 39.3: “While I was musing the fire burned.” The reason we come away so cold from reading the word, is because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation.

9. Come to the reading of Scripture with humble hearts; acknowledge how unworthy you are that God would reveal himself in his word to you. God’s secrets are with the humble. Pride is an enemy to profiting. It has been said that the ground on which the peacock sits is barren; that heart where pride sits is really barren. An arrogant person disdains the counsels of the word, and hates the reproofs: is he likely to profit? James 4.6: “God gives grace to the humble.” The most eminent saints have been of low stature in their own eyes; like the sun at the zenith, they showed least when they were at the highest. David had “more understanding than all his teachers.” Psalm 119.99: but how humble he was. Psalm 22.6: “I am a worm and no man.”

10. Give credence to the written word; believe it is of God; see the name of God in every line. The Romans, so that they might gain credit for their laws, reported that they were inspired by the gods at Rome. Believe the Scriptures to be divinely inspired. 2Tim. 3.16: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” Who but God could reveal the great doctrines of the Trinity, the atonement of Jesus Christ for sinners, and the resurrection? From where would the Scriptures come, if not from God?

Believe that the pedigree of Scripture is sacred, and that it comes from the Father of light. The antiquity of Scripture speaks its divinity. No extant human history reaches further than Noah’s flood; but the Scripture addresses things before time. Besides that, the majesty, profundity, purity and harmony of Scripture, show it could be breathed from none but God himself. Add to this the efficacy that the written word has upon men’s consciences. By reading Scripture, they have been turned into other men, as may be instanced in Austin, Junius, and others. If you were to set a seal upon a piece of marble, and it left a print behind, you would say there was a strange virtue in that seed; so that, when the written word leaves a heavenly print of grace upon the heart, it argues that it is of divine authority. If you were to profit by the word, you must believe it is of God.

Some skeptics question the verity of Scripture. Though they have the articles of religion in their creed, yet they do not have it in their belief. Unbelief enervates the virtue of the word and makes it abortive. Who will obey truths that he does not believe? Heb. 4.2: “The word did not profit them, not being mixed with faith.”

11. Highly prize the Scriptures. Psalm 119.72: “The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Can someone be proficient in any art if he slights and depreciates it? Prize this book of God above all other books. Gregory calls the Bible the heart and soul of God. The Rabbies say that there is a mountain of sense upon every point and tittle of Scripture. Psalm 19.7: “The law of the Lord is perfect.” The Scripture is the library of the Holy Ghost; it is a code 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 practise; it is able to make us wise unto salvation. 2Tim. 3.15. The Scripture is the standard of truth, the judge of controversy; it is the pole star to direct us to heaven. 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 hidden; it is a rock of diamond; it is a sacred Collyrium, or eye-salve; it mends the eyes of those who look upon it; it is a spiritual optic glass in which the glory of God is resplendent; it is the panacea, or 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 the breeder and feeder of grace. How is the convert born, but by “the word of truth?” James 1.18. How does he grow but by “the sincere milk of the word?” 1Peter 2.2. The written word is the book out of which our evidences for heaven are fetched; it is the sea-mark which shows us the rocks of sin; 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 at Rome, which was a place of strength and ammunition. The Scripture is the tower of David on which the shields of our faith hang. Take away the word, and you deprive us of the sun, said Luther. The written word is above an angelical embassy, or a voice from heaven. 2 Peter 1.18: “We heard this voice which came from heaven; we also have a more sure word.” If Caesar so valued his Commentaries, that in preserving them he lost his purple robe, how should we estimate the sacred oracles of God? Job 23.12: “I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.” King Edward VI, on the day of his coronation, had three swords presented to him, signifying that he was monarch of three kingdoms. The King said there was one sword missing; being asked what that was, he answered, “the Holy Bible, which is the sword of the spirit, and it is to be preferred before all these ensigns of royalty.” Robert, King of Sicily, so prized God’s word that, speaking to his friend Petrarch, he said, “I protest that the Scriptures are dearer to me than my kingdom, and if I must be deprived of one of them, I would rather lose my diadem than the Scriptures.”

12. Get an ardent love for the word. Prizing something relates to the judgment; love relates to the affections. Psalm 119.159: “Consider how I love your precepts.” He is likely to grow rich who delights in his trade; a lover of learning will be a scholar. Austin tells us that before his conversion he took no pleasure in the Scriptures, but afterwards they were his delights. David thought the word was sweeter than the honey which drips from the comb. Thomas `a Kempis used to say he found no contentment except in a corner, with the book of God in his hand. Did Alphonsus, King of Sicily, recover from a fit of sickness because of the great pleasure he took in reading Quintus Curtius? Then what infinite pleasure we should take in reading the book of life! There is enough in the word to breed holy satisfaction and delight; it is a specimen and demonstration of God’s holy love for us. The Spirit is God’s love-token; the word is his love letter; and how one rejoices to read over his friend’s letter! The written word is a divine treasury, or store-house. Truth is scattered in it like pearls to adorn the inner man of his heart. The written word is the true manna, which has all sorts of sweet taste in it. It is a sovereign elixir; it gives wine to those with a heavy heart. I have read of an ancient Rabbi, who, in a great concourse of people, proclaimed a sovereign cordial which he had to sell. Many resorted 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; Psalm 119.50: “This is my comfort in my affliction; for your word has quickened me.” Chrysostom compares the Scripture to a garden; every line in it is a fragrant flower which we should not wear in our pocket but in our heart.

Delight in the word causes profit: and we must not love only the comforts of the word, but the reproofs. Myrrh is bitter to the palate, but good for the stomach.

13. Come to the reading of the word with honest hearts. Christ speaks of the “honest heart.” Luke 8.15.

What is it to read the word with an honest heart?

14. Learn to apply Scripture; take every word as spoken to yourselves. When the word thunders against sin, think this way: God means my sins; when it presses any duty, God intends me in this word. 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, then bring it home to yourselves. A medicine will do no good unless it is 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.” 2 Kings 22.11.

15. Observe the preceptive part of the word, as well as the promissory. 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 spirit. Make use of the precepts to direct you, and the promises to comfort you. Those who keep their eye on the promise, while neglecting the command, are not edified by Scripture; they look more for comfort than duty. They mistake their comforts, just 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.

16. Let your thoughts dwell on the passages of Scripture that matter. The bee fastens on those flowers where she may suck the most sweetness. Though the whole context 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. Mind the “great things of the law.” Hosea 8.12. Those who read only to satisfy their curiosity, busy themselves, rather than profit themselves. Searching too far into Christ’s temporal reign has weakened his spiritual reign in some men’s hearts.

17. Compare yourself 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 a counterpart of Scripture? Is the word copied out into your hearts? The word calls for humility; are you not only humbled, but also humble? The word calls for regeneration: John 3.7; do you have a change of heart? Is there not only a moral and partial change, but a spiritual change? Is there such a change wrought in you, that it is as if another soul lived in the same body? 1 Cor. 6.11: “Such were some of you, but you are washed, you are sanctified.” The word calls for love toward the saints; 1Peter 1.22. Do you love grace where you see it? Do you love grace in a poor man as well as in a rich man? A son loves to see his father’s picture, though hung in a poor frame.

Do you love grace even though it is mixed with some failings, just as we love gold even while it is in the ore? Bringing the rule of the word and our hearts together, to see how they agree, would prove very advantageous to us. By this we come to know the true complexion and state of our souls, and we see what evidences and certificates we have for heaven.

18. Take special notice of those Scriptures which speak to your particular case If a person with consumption were to read Galen or Hippocrates, he would chiefly observe what they said about consumption. Great regard is to be had to those paragraphs of Scripture which are most appropriate to one’s present case.

I will note three cases: 1. Affliction. 2. Desertion. 3. Sin.

1. Affliction. Has God made your chain heavy? Consult these Scriptures. Heb. 12.7: “If you endure chastening, God deals with you as sons.” Isaiah 27.9: “By this the iniquity of Jacob shall be purged.” John 16.20: “Your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” 2Cor. 4.17: “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” The limner lays his gold on dark colors; God first lays the dark color of affliction, and then the golden color of glory.

2. Desertion. Are your spiritual comforts eclipsed? See Isaiah 54.8: “In a little wrath I hid my face from you, for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you.” 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 the covenant. Isaiah 57.16: “I will not be always angry, for the spirits would fail before me, and the souls which I have made.” God is like the musician; he will not stretch the strings of his lute too hard, lest they break. Psalm 97.11: “Light is sown for the righteous.” A saint’s comfort may be hidden as seed is hidden under the clods of dirt; but at last it will spring up into a harvest of joy.

3. Sin.

19. Take special notice of the examples in Scripture; make the examples of others living sermons to you.

20. Do not stop reading in the Bible, till you find your hearts warmed. Psalm 119.93: “I will never forget your precepts, for you have made me alive with them.” Read the word not only as a history, but strive to be affected with it. Let it not only inform you, but inflame you. Jer. 23.29: “Is not my word like a fire?” says the Lord. Do not go from the word till you can say as those disciples said, Luke 24.32: “Did our hearts not burn within us?”

21. Begin the practice of what you read. Psalm 119.66: “I have done your commandments.” A student in medicine does not satisfy himself to read over a system or body of medicine, but he begins its practice. The life-blood of religion lies in the practical part. So it is in this text: “He shall read in the book of the law all the days of his life, so that he may learn to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them.” Christians should be walking Bibles. Xenophon said many read the laws of Lycurgus, but few observed them. The written word 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 to his feet.” Psalm 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 the Scriptures, 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.

22. 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 loose its seals. Rev. 5.5.

Christ so teaches, as he enlivens. John 8.12. The philosopher says, 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 a taste of his word: “You have taught me how sweet your words are to my taste.” Psalm 119.102, 103. It is one thing to read a promise, and another to taste it. Those who would be proficient in Scripture, let them get Christ to be their teacher. Luke 24.45: “Then he opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.” Christ not only opened the Scriptures, but he opened their understanding.

23 . Tread often upon the threshold of the sanctuary. Wait diligently upon a rightly constituted ministry. Prov 8.34: “Blessed is the man who hears me, watching daily at my gates.” Ministers are God’s interpreters; it is their work to open and expound dark places in Scripture. We read of pitchers and lamps within those pitchers. Judges 7.16. Ministers are earthen pitchers. 2Cor. 4.7. But these pitchers have lamps within them to light souls in the dark.

24. Pray that God will make you profit. Isaiah 48.17: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit.” Make David’s prayer: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” Psalm 119.18. Pray to God to take the veil off the Scriptures, so that you may understand it; and the veil on your heart, so 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. Neh. 9.20: “You gave them your good Spirit to instruct them.” Though the ship has a compass to sail by, and a store of tackle, yet without a gale of wind it cannot sail. Though we have the written word as our compass to sail by, and we make use of our endeavors as the tackle, yet unless the Spirit of God blows on us, we cannot sail with profit. When the Almighty is like dew to us, then “we grow as the lily, and our beauty is like the olive tree.” Hosea 14.5, 6: by the anointing of the Holy Ghost. One may see the figures on a sun-dial, but he cannot tell how the day goes unless the sun shines. We may read many truths in the Bible, but we cannot know them savingly till God’s Spirit shines into our souls. 2Cor. 4.6. The Spirit is a Spirit of wisdom and revelation. Eph. 1.17. When Philip joined himself to the eunuch’s chariot, then the eunuch understood the Scriptures. Acts 8.35. When God’s Spirit joins himself to the word, then it will be effectual to salvation. These rules being observed, the written word would, through God’s blessing, become an “engrafted word.” James 1.21. A good shoot grafted into a bad stock, changes the nature of the stock, and makes it bear sweet and generous fruit. So when the word is grafted savingly into men’s hearts, it sanctifies them, and makes them bring forth the sweet “fruits of righteousness.” Phil. 1.11.

Thus I have answered this question, how we may read the Scriptures with the most spiritual profit. In conclusion,

But some of the godly may say they fear that they do not profit by the word they read. As in the body, when the vital spirits become faint, cordials are employed. So let me apply a few divine cordials to those who are ready to faint under the fear of their non-proficiency [in the Scriptures].

So then, be of good comfort. You profit by what you read, and you take note of that encouraging Scripture, John 14.26: “The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, he shall bring all things to your remembrance.” Amen.

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