On Reading the Bible by Books
By John A. Broadus
(1827 - 1895)
The main support of all individual Christian life, the main-spring of all high Christian work, must be the truth of God. Truth is the life-blood of piety. Truth is always more potent and more precious when we draw it ourselves out of the Bible. I rode out yesterday afternoon with a kind friend among the glories of the famous avenue of Cleveland, and then away into the beautiful country region which they hope is to be Cleveland Park some day, until we passed presently a little fountain where the water, coming fresh and sweet and bright, was bursting from the hillside. The water we drink in the houses here from the lake is delightful, but there it was a fountain. There is nothing like drinking water out of a fountain. And I remembered what my Lord Bacon has said: “Truth from any other source is like water from a cistern; but truth drawn out of the Bible is like drinking water from a fountain, immediately where it springeth.” Ah, this Christian work we have to day in the world will be wise and strong and mighty just in proportion, other things being equal, as it is directed and controlled and inspired by what we draw ourselves out of the Word of God! I have come to speak to people who want to study the Bible, who do study the Bible, who love the Bible, and would fain love it more and know it better. I am not to speak to Biblical scholars, though such are present, no doubt, I am not to speak to persons of great leisure, who can spend hours every day over their Bible; but to busy workers, most of them busy with the ordinary pursuits of human life, in their homes or places of business, and all of them busy, I have no doubt, in the varied work of Christian people in the world, and they wish to know how busy people, often interrupted in their daily reading of the Bible, and often limited for time, can make the most of this daily reading. Therefore, they will be willing, perhaps, to listen.
I am to undertake, by request, to set forth one of the many ways of reading the Bible, which I think may have special advantages, which is often too much neglected, and which may contribute to give us intellectual interest in the Bible, and to make its study spiritually profitable. I want your kind aid in doing this, my friends. I am going to speak of an intensely practical matter in as thoroughly practical a manner as I know how, and when I am done, I shall be exceedingly glad if one and another of you will ask me questions about the subject, or about anything that has been said.
The Bible is one book; but the Bible is many books. It is an interesting subject of reflection to look back upon the process by which men ceased calling it books and began to think of it as a book. You know that the Greek name for Bible, Ta Hagia Biblia, means the sacred books; and when they borrowed the Greek term into the Latin Biblia Sacra, it was still plural -- the Sacred Books. How has that Biblia come to be a singular word in our language? When the various writings of inspired men had all been completed and began to be thought of as one collection, complete in itself, and when men began to know that singular and beautiful harmony which pervades so wonderfully all this great collection of books, written by so many men, through so many long centuries, perceiving that it was not only a complete collection of books, but that they were all in perfect harmony with each other, then the idea grew upon the Christian mind that this was really one book. A very noble thought that is, to be cherished and made plain to each successive generation -- the internal harmony of all these various writings of inspired men.
But then we must not forget that, after all, it is many books. They were written separately; they were most of them published separately; they were originally read separately from each other; they had a separate character, a substantially separate meaning and value, a practical influence over those who read them, and they ought to be read as separate books.
Then each one of them must be read as a whole if we would understand them well. You cannot understand any book if you read it only by fragments -- I mean the first time you read it. A cultivated gentleman of this city remarked at dinner today that he was reading for the third time that beautiful book of piety, “The Memorials of a Quiet Life,” -- reading it for the third time, fifteen minutes of every day, he said. That is very well when he is reading it for the third time; but if he had read it fifteen minutes of every day the first time, he could not have entered so fully into the meaning of the book. The celebrated John Locke has a saying on this subject in the preface of his commentary on the Epistles of Paul. He said he had found from his experience that in order to understand one of the Epistles of Paul, it will not do to take it in fragments. Why, suppose a letter from an absent friend, whom he loves very much -- a letter full of valuable instruction to him, and that he reads a page today and then lays it down; the next day he takes another page and begins at the beginning of the second page, and does not notice much what was at the end of the first page; the third day he begins at the top of the third page and reads that. How much will he know and you ask him what it is about; he does not quite know what it is about, and no wonder, with such a process of reading. You must take the Epistles, says Locke, as you would take any other letter. You must take them each as a whole, and sit down and read each from beginning w about the letter when he is done? He tells you, perhaps, “I have been reading a letter from So-and-so -- a letter full of valuable instruction,” and you ask him what it is about; he does not quite know what it is about, and no wonder, with such a process of reading. You must take the Epistles, says Locke, as you would take any other letter. You must take them each as a whole, and sit down and read each from beginning to end, and see what it is about. And then, if it is very valuable, you will take it afterwards in parts, not necessarily in pages, but in parts according to the subject of which it treats, and you will see what it says about this subject, and what it says about that subject, etc. That seems to be very plain common sense, and yet what a pity that the idea has not struck more widely into the minds of the Christian world!
Let us just take up together, now, some books of the Bible, and by your very kind permission, I will address myself to the average reader, the person of average intelligence.
Take the First Book of Samuel. You want to read that book through at a sitting. How long will it take you? Forty-five or fifty minutes. Read it as you would read a Sunday-school book that one of your children brought home from Sunday-school, right straight through before you rise. Say to yourself, “What is this book about?” You find it is about Samuel, and presently it passes on to tell about Saul. Samuel continues to be his contemporary. After awhile young David came into the history, and it goes on so till Samuel passes away and you reach the death of Saul with the end of the book. So that book has treated about Samuel, Saul and David, and you have got some idea of the general history of each of these persons, up to the death of Saul, and the time when you know that David succeeded him. Then you go to reading it again, the next day we will suppose, for you are a busy person. You take the book the next day, begin at the beginning and say, “Well now, the first part of this book is about Samuel. Let me look over it here, and see into what portions of Samuel’s life it divides itself.” You see pretty soon that you have first an account of Samuel’s birth and childhood; secondly, you have an account of Samuel’s active life as ruler of Israel; and then, thirdly, you have an account of Samuel’s old age, when he had anointed Saul as King of Israel, and lived on as Saul’s prophet, and finally came in contact with the youth of David. Those are the three periods of Samuel’s history presented -- his youth, his active life as ruler, and his old age as a prophet. You take up the account of his youth, and you purpose to read as much as you can of that for this first reading. Now the best way would be to read the book three times, if you are patient enough. I know this is a terribly impatient age, and I am afraid you will not do that. I am afraid you will wish to make only two readings of the book, and we will suppose that you adopt that course, although the other is better. While you are reading this life of Samuel, then, in its several portions, you will be studying Samuel’s character as a prophet, a ruler and a good man. You will be paying some attention to Samuel’s mission and office in the unfolding of the history of the people of Israel; for he occupies a very unique and interesting position. You will at the same time be attending, paragraph by paragraph, without bothering yourself much about chapters, to the practical lessons which are presented to you. “What is there here for me to imitate? What is there here for me to learn? What is there in this trait of Samuel’s character, what is this experience of Samuel’s life that I ought especially to lay to heart?” You are now getting the lessons out of one portion of the life, but with a reference to the other portion, taking it all as a whole. When you have completed the life of Samuel in that way, you pass to the life of Saul. You find you have Saul’s early years and Saul’s later history as a division into two parts. Perhaps you mark down on a bit of paper with a pencil, or you mark down on the fly-leaf of your Bible itself, the divisions in this way. Then you take one after another and study them. And so with the history of David as it comes in; the struggles of David’s early years; then passing as you would have to do into the other book, Second Samuel, the history of David’s prosperity in middle life, and finally, the history of his sore adversities in his later years. You will thus see how the struggles of his early years prepared him for his day of prosperity, and how the sins of his day of prosperity brought on his adversity and bitter sorrow, and you begin to take David’s life as a whole, and see the connection of the different parts of it -- see how the different traits of character, good and evil, come out one after another, and apply each, one after the other, to yourself. Now, I suppose that this would be a much wiser way of reading the First Book of Samuel, than just to read one or two chapters today, and the next day begin to read at the next chapter, and not stop to see what there is in the former, which is the way (present company, of course, excepted!) a great many people read their Bible.
But let us turn to another kind of book. Take one of the Epistles of Paul. You will find that the books of the Bible must be treated, for our purpose, in a great variety of ways, according to their peculiar character. Take, now, the First Epistle to the Corinthians. We will suppose that you sit down and read it straight through, and just let the chapters go. What are the chapters, and who was the chapter-maker? Not the inspired writer, as everybody knows. Chapters and verses are convenient enough, provided we use them as servants and do not allow them to be masters. You read it straight through and see what it is all about, and you will find as you read that Epistle that it treats of a number of entirely distinct subjects. They have nothing to do with each other so far as you can see. You take your pencil and mark them down as you go along. You find there are four chapters -- for the chapter-maker made but one grave mistake in that epistle, which is saying a good deal to his credit, more than can be said in other places -- there are four chapters which treat of the divisions among the Corinthians, and the fact that they made these divisions with reference to the several preachers. This leads Paul to speak of his own way of preaching. He would not accommodate himself to their notions of preaching, a lesson which preachers sometimes have to remember in this cranky world. Then you find two chapters in which he speaks of special evils that existed among them -- evils of licentiousness, and evils of getting their personal difficulties settled by heathen judges, instead of getting them settled by their own brethren for the honor of Christianity. He said, in the first place, that they ought not to have personal difficulties to settle, and, in the next place, if they had them, they ought to get them settled by their own brethren and not go to the heathen for it. Then you find the seventh chapter treats of questions pertaining to marriage, about which they had written inquiring of the apostle. Then you go on and you will see that chapters, 8, 9 and 10 talk about the question of eating meat which had been offered to idols. That was a grave practical question among them, far graver than many questions that we dispute about now-a-days, though to us it is dead and gone, just as many of our questions of dispute will be dead and gone in the coming centuries, and men will wonder what in the world made those good people of the nineteenth century spend so much time over matters that will seem to them of no consequence whatever. Those three chapters treat of the eating of meat offered to idols, and in connection with that the apostle indicates the right course by the course that he pursued. Then, to proceed with the Epistle, you find that chapters 11 to 14 treat of abuses that had arisen at Corinth in connection with their public worship. A variety of abuses are mentioned. Most of them refer to the disorderly conduct of their public worship, when ever so many of them would want to speak at once, and they would not sit down as gracefully as I saw gentlemen do this afternoon in the social meeting. They would go on talking together, and were not willing to give up to each other. Some of them were proud that they had special gifts, and others jealous because they did not have the like, and the apostle tells them that all this must be managed in decency and in order, and that Christian love is a far brighter, sweeter, nobler thing than all the special gifts. Just here please let the chapters alone, for what you call the 13thchapter of I Corinthians comes right in as a part of his teaching about this matter of the displaying of gifts, the ambition, the jealousy, etc., and you have no business reading the first portion of that chapter without noticing how it links on with what precedes at the end of the twelfth chapter, and without noticing how the end of it is connected with the chapter that follows. It blazes like a diamond on the bosom of Scripture, but then it fastens Scripture together. The fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians treats of the Resurrection, and the sixteenth contains some practical information, etc.
Now you have half a dozen entirely distinct subjects here. You have observed that, and you have marked it down. Then you take the subjects up one at a time, and study them. You will find some other epistles in which you cannot make that sort of absolute division -- this topic, and then another topic, and then a third topic -- but the writer goes from one thing to another, and then perhaps comes back to the first subject. Still, in a good many of those cases, you can find that there is some one thought that is the key-note to the whole. Take the Epistle to the Philippians, for example. It is quite short; you can read it all through in less than half an hour. You ask yourself, What is this all about? What is the main idea here? for you perceive that you have not here several topics, as in First Corinthians. The main idea, however, is Christian joy. “Rejoice in the Lord.” Wonderful idea, when you remember that the man who wrote the letter to the Philippians was a prisoner chained, his life subject to the caprice of the most terrific tyrant the world has ever seen. And he was writing to a church poor and persecuted, which had sore trials awaiting it in the future. Yet, in the midst of all this, Paul writes to his persecuted brethren, and the key-note of what he says is, “Rejoice in the Lord.” It is true that, in the middle of the Epistle, he apologizes for saying it so often. He says, “To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous.” He thought it might be grievous to them. Before he gets through with it he says it two or three times more, and at the end he breaks forth, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!” Our beloved brother Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, was yet a man of like passions with ourselves, and as our Saviour Himself showed humanness none the less genuine because so blended with the Divine nature, in the unity of His one person, and that humanness of His sweetly draws us toward the Divine; so it is with the humanness of the sacred writings, too, and we may feel the touch of human thinking, and the glow of human feeling, and not lose at all our reverence for the divinity that is in it all.
Now, I have just two or three remarks to make in conclusion. If we read the Bible by books, first taking each book as a whole, then seeing how it is divided up, then taking the several divisions and treating them, and so coming down to details, we shall learn in that way, and learn for ourselves how to interpret the several parts of Scripture with reference to their connection. Everybody will agree that you ought to look at the connection of a passage of Scripture. I remember one day my father said he did not like to find fault with preachers, but he wished some of them would pay more attention to the connection of the text, as the preacher that morning did not do. I suppose they have grown wiser since that day, and always do pay attention to the connection now. But in talking about it my father said, “Now, I can prove to you out of the Bible -- it was an illustration to a little child -- that there is no God.” He got his Bible, opened it to a certain place, put his finger down and said, “Come here and read;” and the boy read, “There is no God,” and it began with a capital T, too, as if it were a complete sentence. Then my father lifted his finger and said, “How is that? ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.’” “Now,” he said, “don’t you see, you must always attend to the connection.” That was a very simple lesson, certainly. What is the connection of a passage of Scripture? Only the other part of the sentence? Well, there are preachers sometimes who do not attend even to the other part of the sentence, and it may be true of some other persons besides preachers. But is that all the connection, only a sentence before or after a particular passage you are considering? Sometimes that is all, but in other cases it is apage or two that is the connection, and, as I have said, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and in the book of Job, it is the whole book that is the connection; you cannot be sure that you are getting the precise point of view and the real meaning of any one of the sentences, unless you take it as a part of the whole, and with reference to the whole line of thought and practical design. You see how important it is that we should learn to study every particular expression of Scripture in its connection. It is a very beautiful thing to pick out the passages of Scripture that treat of some particular subject, as you can do with the help of a concordance, and put them together in a mosaic. It is like taking many pebbles and combining them, as the Romans were fond of doing, into a mosaic. That is a very delightful thing, only be sure about your material. Take care that you see where these things come from, and that you have got them right. No man would be so unwise as to take out of the Epistle of Paul, “A man is justified by faith without the works of the law,” and then take a fragment out of James, “We know that a man is justified by works and not by faith only,” and lay those two together and say, “How beautiful is the harmony of Scripture!” We know we must see what Paul was talking about and to whom he was talking, and to what sort of persons James was talking, and what he was talking at, in order to judge what each meant by this particular form of expression; we dare not put those two passages side by side and neglect the connection. Now in many other cases the difficulty and danger are not so obvious, but they may be just as real. So often, when a man with his concordance is picking out passages that all contain a certain word or refer to a certain subject, and laying them all together in a beautiful picture to please the eye, it is as if he made a mosaic in this fashion: Here is a pebble and there is a diamond; here is a crumb of sugar and there is a flower bulb; and those make a mosaic, do they? A mosaic is a beautiful thing, but your materials must be harmonious. You must know where these things come from. You must understand their connection, or else you will break living things all to pieces, in order to build up the dead fragments into a dead thing.
Then another remark. Each of these sacred books has its special aim and practical value, and we ought to try to get the practical impression that each of them is designed to make. For instance, each of the Gospels presents certain aspects of the life, character and work of our Lord. You read one Gospel to see how that presents Jesus, and each of the other Gospels to see how it presents Him, and if you have done that and then try to blend them all together in your loving faith, and reverence and humble desire to live like Him, God being your helper, and to bring others with you to follow Him too, you have made the most beautiful harmony of the Gospels that ever is made in this world. So as to other portions of the Scripture. We ought to get the devout and practical inspiration which each particular book is designed to give, and these, one after another, will unite themselves together in the symmetry of a complete Christian character, and the fullness and power of a true Christian life.
I have spoken with the hope that I might by God’s blessing awaken in some of you at least a greater desire to read the Bible attentively, and I pray God that we may all turn away with an earnest promise in our own souls, before Him who knows the heart, that in the remainder of our lives we will try to love His Word more, to read it more wisely, and to live more according to its blessed teachings.
[From Christopher Cockrell, editor, the Berea Baptist Banner January 5, 2012, pp. 1, 13, 14, & 15. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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