How to Read the Bible-C H Spurgeon





On Thursday Evening, June 21st, 1866,

(ED NOTE: See Related Resources Below)

“Till I come, give attendance to reading.”—1 Timothy 4:13.

OF course, this counsel and exhortation is intended primarily as a direction to Christian ministers, and especially to young Christian ministers. They must read much if they are to be profitable to others as preachers. There used to be a very stupid conceit in some sections of the Church, that if a minister read extensively he would only give forth stale truth, or what some simpletons called, “dead men’s brains.” Men have now learned, however, that he will be most fresh and original in his own thoughts who most diligently cultivates his mind by studying and pondering the thoughts of other minds. He who never quotes, will never be quoted, and he who does not read is not very likely to be read.

Of course, the first thing the minister needs is to be taught of the Spirit, but then the question is—How does the Spirit teach? He teaches, no doubt, mainly through the Word and through our own experimental acquaintance with that Word, but if he pleases to reveal a truth to another man, and I will not read that truth as it has been recorded by that other man, I have neglected the teaching of the Spirit of God. You know, with regard to the Saviour’s miracles, that there was not one of them that was unnecessary. He never did a thing by miracle which could have been performed by the ordinary laws of nature. So is it with the teaching of the Spirit. I have no right to expect that the Spirit will reveal truth to me without the use of a book when I can find it out for myself with the book. “The Holy Spirit helpeth our infirmities,” but not our idlenesses. He is given to us on purpose that he may help us wherein we are weak, but not that we may be indulged wherein we are slothful. I have sometimes had the unutterable misery of listening to a sermon which has been professedly dictated by the Spirit of God, but in which it was clear, that the preacher had never thought upon the subject before he spoke, and I can only say that I was quite at a loss to perceive any peculiar beauty in the sermon, nor did I see anything at all which made it as a source of edification superior to a sermon which had been prepared by someone else. I thought I detected a good many traits of human ignorance, and but very few traces of the working of the Holy Spirit.

There are many young fellows here to-night who are preparing for the ministry. I shall not, however, enlarge on this point, but shall only press on their earnest consideration and their most devout meditation, this inspired exhortation, which is not mine, nor even an apostle’s only, but the exhortation of the Holy Spirit of God through the apostle. “Give attendance to reading.” If brethren you would bless God’s Church, and train up a band of really intelligent Christians, do not be always appealing to the emotions only, but give out also good, sound, strong gospel doctrine, and illustrate the doctrine, so as to expound and commend to others. Do this especially by reading the words of the greatest masters in Scripture theology, and these will prove your delightful and dear companions, and your splendid helpers in making your ministry richly profitable to your hearers.

This, however, is not our special subject for to-night. This same exhortation so peculiarly suitable to the minister, will suit all his hearers too, because the ministry is not a religious caste peculiar to some few; but, we are all of us to teach others according as God shall teach us; and in order that we may be useful in our sphere, as the minister is in his, we must adopt the same means to fit ourselves for our high privilege, and to prepare us to be used by God; and, as the minister without reading will have but little power, so will it be with Christians in general. “Give attendance to reading” is an exhortation which I would press upon most of you, especially those of you who have leisure, and who are not called to exhausting labours which take up all your time.

I am not, however, going to keep so closely to my text as merely to exhort you to read. I want to ask you to read God’s Word. That seems to me to be the Christian’s book. You may read other books, and your mind may thereby be well-furnished with spiritual things, but if you keep to the Word of God, though you may be deficient in many points of a liberal education, you will not be deficient in the education that will fit you for blessed service here, for the service of skies, for communion with God on earth, and communion with Christ in glory.

My object this evening is to say a few things about how to read the Bible. Last Thursday night we spoke at length upon God’s Word and as to its excellencies. To-night, I think it fitting that we should speak a little about how to read that Word with greatest profit to our souls. In doing so we shall hope to consider seven precepts all bearing powerfully upon this important matter. Our first precept shall be—I. READ AND DEPEND on the Spirit of God. How often do we open the sacred book and read a chapter through, perhaps at family-prayer, or perhaps in our own private devotions, and having read from the first verse to the last, we shut up the book, thinking we have done something very right and very proper, and in a vague way somehow profitable to us. Very right and very proper indeed, and yet, right and proper as the thing is, we may really have gained nothing thereby. We may, in fact, have only drilled ourselves in the merely external part of religion, and may not have enjoyed anything spiritual, or anything that can be beneficial to our souls, if we have forgotten the divine Spirit through whom the Word has come to us.

Ought we not even to remember that in order properly to understand the holy Word we need to have the Holy Spirit to be his own expositor? The hymn says concerning Providence—

      “God is his own interpreter,
         And he will make it plain;”

and certainly it is so with regard to the Scriptures. Commentators and expositors are very useful indeed, but the best expositor is always the author of a book himself. If I had a book which I did not quite understand, it would be a very great convenience to me to live next door to the author, for then I could run in, and ask him what he meant. This is just your position, Christian. The book will sometimes puzzle you, but the divine author, who must know his own meaning, is ever ready to lead you into its meaning. He dwelleth in you, and shall be with you, and saith Christ Jesus, “When he, the Spirit of truth is come, he shall lead you into all truth.”

But to understand the Word is not enough. We need also that he make us to feel its power. How can we do this except through the Holy Ghost? “Thy Word hath quickened me,” O God, but it is only as thou didst quicken me through it. The Word of God is to be read literally, but “it is the letter that killeth,” only “the Spirit giveth life,” and, excellent as are its statements, yet even they have no spiritual force in themselves. Unless the Holy Ghost shall fill them even they shall become as wells without water, and as clouds without rain. Have you not often found it so, yourselves? I appeal now to your own experience. You have sometimes read a portion of Scripture, and the page has seemed to glow, your heart has burned within you, and you have said that the Word came home to you with power.

Just so; but it was the Holy Spirit who was bringing it close home to your spirit in its true power and making it a sweet savour of life unto life to you. At other times, you may have read the very same passage, and missed painfully the sweetness which once you had tasted, and lost the lovely light that once flashed from it upon your mind’s eye.

Everything must depend upon the Spirit speaking through it, for even the light of the Word of God is to a great extent but moonlight, that is to say, it is a reflection of the light which streams from God himself, who is the one, the true source of light. If God shineth not upon the Word when we read it, then the Word shineth not back upon us, but becomes a dark Word to us, or as one saith “rather an obscuration than a revelation, rather concealing God from us, than revealing him to us. Look up, reader! the next time the book is in thy hands, look up before thou openest it, and while thine eye is running down the page, look up and pray that God would shine upon it; and when the chapter is finished and thou puttest the book away, afford a minute again to look up and ask his blessing. If by reading the Scriptures we were only always reminded of the Holy Spirit, if we got no other good from the Scripture itself except the turning of our souls to think upon that divine and blessed one, that would be in itself an inestimable boon. Do read, then, thoughtfully remembering the great author.
Our second precept is—


There is no exercise more out of fashion nowadays than meditation; and yet, to use Brookes’s expression, “it is a soul-fattening duty.” The cattle crop the grass, but the nutriment comes from the chewing of the cud. Reading is the gathering together of our food, but meditation is the chewing of the cud, the digesting, the assimilating of the truth. I quarry out the truth when I read, but I smelt the ore and get the pure gold out of it when I meditate. Ruth gleaned, but afterwards she threshed. The reader is the gleaner, but he who meditates is the thresher, too. For lack of meditation the truth runneth by us, and we miss and lose it. Our treacherous memory is like a sieve, and what we hear and what we read runs through it and leaves but little behind, and that little is often unprofitable to us, by reason of our lack of diligence to get thoroughly at it. I often find it very profitable to get a text as a sweet morsel under my tongue in the morning and to keep the flavour of it, if I can, in my mouth all the day.

I like to turn it over and over again in my mind, for any one text of the Scriptures you will find to be like the kaleidoscope. Turn it one way, and you say, “What a fair truth is this!” Turn it another way and you see the same truth, but under how different an aspect! Turn it yet once more, and keep doing it all day, and you will be amazed and delighted to find in how many lights the same truth will appear, and what wonderful permutations and combinations you can find in it. When you have been all day doing this, you will be constrained to feel that there is an infinity about even one text, so that you can never completely comprehend it, but find it still is beyond you. If you get a passage of Scripture given you, do not give it up quickly, because you do not immediately seize its force and fulness. The manna which fell in the wilderness would not keep sweet beyond one day; if kept over unto the second it bred worms and stank. But there was one portion of manna which was put into a golden pot, and laid up in the ark of the covenant, which never lost its sweetness and heavenly nutriment. And there is a way of keeping the precious portions of God’s word that are given you to-day, in such a manner that you may go in the strength of it for forty days, and continue to find fresh food in the same text day after day, and even month after month. But this is only to be done by meditating upon it. Our hymn has a fable in it when it says that the

         “Spicy breezes
      Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle,”

Voyagers who have been there tell us that they have never smelt “the spicy breezes,” for the cinnamon yields no perfume till it is bruised and broken, and certainly God’s Word is exceedingly full of perfume, but not till it has been graciously bruised by reverent and loving meditation. You cannot get the sweetness and fragrance therefrom till you have smitten it again and again in the mortar of thought with the pestle of recollection. Meditate, then, upon these things.

“But how can we meditate,” says one, “when we have so many things to think of?” But “one thing is needful,” and it is needful that the Christian should meditate upon the things of God. I know you must give your minds to many things, and I cannot ask you not to do so, but whenever you have time to rest, then let your minds come back to the old home. The birds of the air are all day long picking up their food, but they go straight away to the roosting-place at night, and so when the day’s business is over, and the daily bread has been gained, do you fly to your nest, and rest your soul in some precious portion of God’s Word. During the day too, whenever you are freed from anxiety, let your mind dart upwards, and it will help you so to do, if you take a text and make it as wings that enable you to fly to ponder heavenly things. Read and meditate.

The third rule for our guidance should be—


What I mean is just this. Do not read the Bible as a book for other people. Do not read it merely to say, “Yes, it is true; very true; I believe its doctrines to be the revelation of the infallible mind of God himself.” But endeavour also in reading a passage of the Scriptures, always to see how much it belongs to you. For some of you there is very little in the Word of God except threatening. Pray God to help you to feel the solemnity even of the threatening, for if you feel deeply the threatening now, you may be delivered from the tragic fulfilment of it by-and-by. If you are made to tremble under God’s Word, you may never be made to tremble under God’s hand. If you feel the wrath to come now, you may never have to feel it in the next world. Ask God that his threatenings may drive you out of your sins, and drive you to seek pardon in Christ. Then when you read descriptions of the human heart, and the fall, the corruption, and the depravity of our nature, look, and see yourselves as in a looking glass, and say of each man as you hear of his sin, “I am such a man as this was, and if I do not fall into precisely the same sin, yet the possibility and peril of it is in my heart, and I should do so, but for God’s restraining grace.” Take the very histories home to your heart, and find a point in them, either of encouragement or of warning for yourselves. As for the doctrines, recollect that a doctrine killeth except as it is personally grasped and as you feel your interest in it. I have known some rejoice greatly in the doctrine of election who never were elected, and some who were very pleased with the doctrine of justification by faith, but who had no faith by which to be justified. I have known of some, too, who gloried in final perseverance, but who, if they had finally persevered would certainly have been in hell, for they were on the road there. It is one thing to know these truths, and even to fight for them with the zeal and bitterness of a controversialist, but it is quite another thing to enjoy them as our own heritage and our portion for ever. Ask the Lord to show you your interest in every truth, and do not be satisfied until you have an assured personal interest therein. Especially let this be so with the promises. “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” Well, it is a very fine promise, but if it is read to me thus: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,” what a transformed and glorified promise it then becomes! Stout old Martin Luther used to say, “All vital religion is in the personal and possessive pronouns.” Is it not so? “When thou passest through the rivers I will be with thee, the floods shall not overflow thee!” Oh! truly, such a promise is as a cluster of Eshcol, but it is in Eshcol’s valley and I cannot reach it there; but the promise applied is the cluster brought to me just where I am, and I can receive it, and delight myself in its luscious sweetness.

Take care, none the less, to seek for the application of precepts. Some are always looking out for other people’s duty, and are great judges and critics of what others ought to do. “Who art thou that judgest another man?” To his own master he stands or falls. See what precepts are binding upon thyself, and then, as a child of God, be thy feet swift to run in the way of his commandments. Read the Bible as a man reads his relation’s will, to find what legacy there is in it for himself. Do with the Bible as the sick man does with the doctor’s prescription. Follow it by personally doing what it bids thee. Ask God not to let thy Bible be another man’s Bible, but thine own Bible, God’s own mouth speaking to thy soul of the things which make for thy peace.

Fourthly—and this is very hard work—


If you do not this, you are reading to your own condemnation. If you read, “He that believeth on him is not condemned,” if you believe not then you are “condemned already,” because you have not believed in the Son of God. The gospel is a very solemn thing to every man, because if it be not a savour of life unto life, since it must always be a savour of some sort, it therefore becomes a savour of death unto death. Some seem as if they read the Bible in order to know how not to do, and the more God commands the more they will not obey. Though he draw them they will not come to him, and when he calls them they will give him no answer. A sorry, sorry heart is that which so useth God’s Word as to make it an aggravation of its sin. Our life ought to be—and if God’s grace be much in it, it will be—a new translation of the Bible. Speak of bringing the Bible down into the vernacular! Well, this is it. The worldling’s Bible is the Christian. He never reads the book, but he reads the disciple of Christ, and he judges the Christian religion, by the lives of its professors. The world will learn better, and will more likely be brought to know Christ when the lives of Christians are better, and when the Bible of the Christian life shall be more in accordance with the Bible of Christian doctrine. God make us holy; sanctify us, spirit, soul, and body, and then we shall be made finely serviceable both to the Church and to the world. Read and practise; but we shall only be able to do this, as God the Holy Spirit shall help us. Then let us—


This is, perhaps, coming back almost to the first point, viz., read with dependence on the Holy Spirit; but I desire to impress a rather different thought upon your souls. Martin Luther says he learned more by prayer than he ever learned in any other way. A stone-breaker was one day on his knees breaking flints, when a minister came by and said, “I see you are doing what I often do, breaking up hard things.” “Yes, sir,” was the answer, and I am doing it in the way in which you must do it, on my knees.”

A passage of Scripture will often open up when you pray over it, which will defy mere criticism or looking to expositors. You put the text into action, and then you comprehend it. I suppose if a man were studying anatomy, and had never seen the body in life, he might not be able to know what a certain ligature was for, or such a bone, but if he could set that body moving then might he understand the use of all the different parts, supposing he were able to see them. So when a text of Scripture lies, as it were, dead before us we may not be able to understand it, but when by prayer the text grows into life, and we set it in motion, we comprehend it at once. We may hammer away at a text sometimes in meditation, and strike it again and again, and yet it may not yield to us, but we cry to God, and straightway the text opens, and we see concealed in it wondrous treasures of wisdom and of grace.

But the prayer should not be merely that we may understand the text. I think we should pray over every passage in order that we may be enabled to get out of it what God would impart to us. A text is like a casket which is locked, and prayer is the key to open it, and then we get God’s treasure. The text is God’s letter, full of loving words, but prayer must break the seal. When reading goes with praying and praying goes with reading, then a man goes on both his feet, the bird flies with both his wings. To read only is unprofitable: to pray without reading is not so soul-enriching; but when the two run together, they are like the horses in the chariot, and they speed along right merrily.

Read and pray Christian! but take care thou dost not read without watering thy reading with thy prayer. Paul may plant, and Apollos may water, but God gives the increase, and even in this blessed Book Moses may plant and David may water, but prayer must cry to God or else the increase will not come. Now in the sixth place,


Try what you hear; try what you profess; try what you read. Goldsmiths keep bottles of acid by which they test everything that is offered them for sale, whether it is gold or merely tinsel, and the Christian should keep God’s word near at hand and treasured in the soul, to test thereby all that he hears. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” Many hearers believe all that is said because of the person who declares it to them. This is not according to Christ’s mind. We ought to receive nothing as vital religious truth except it be sent us from above; and however much we may respect the pastor or the teacher, we must not so give up our judgment to any man as to receive his teaching merely because he chooses to utter it. Bring every form of truth that is delivered to you, though it may glitter with oratory and seem reasonable and proper, to the test of Scripture. It is very difficult, however, to get men to do this. They seem to fancy that you have sinister motives the moment you tell them so. There is a conservatism in the nature of us all with regard to our religious faith, which is right enough if it were balanced by another principle. To hold fast what I do know is right, but to be willing to receive or to do anything that God would teach me to receive or do is more right still. I must know what it is to which I do hold fast, or else I may be injuring myself by the fixedness by which I stand to what I have learned. The woman of Samaria said, “Our fathers worshipped God in this mountain.” That is the argument of numbers of persons. “Our fathers did so-and-so.” This would be a capital argument supposing that our fathers were always right, but a very, absurd argument supposing that they were wrong. I hope we are not like that early Saxon who asked where his father and all his ancestors had gone, and when he was told they were no doubt lost, replied to the missionary that he would rather go where they were than become a Christian and be separated from them.

There are some who seem to be of this blood, and boast in it. Their ancestors believed this or that, and they desire to follow them. Many there are who profess doctrines they have never learned, and which they do not really know and grasp. They have the shell but they never reach the kernel. Is not this the case with many of us here to-night? If thou even hast a doctrine in thy mind, find out the text or texts which prove it. If there should happen to be other texts which seem to point the other way, do not cut and pare any of them down, but accept all, and wait until the Spirit reveals wherein they really agree. Scripture is not to fit your opinions, but your opinions to conform to the blessed Word. There is a fable of a foolish gardener who had a tree that would persist in growing oddly. He did not like to restrain it, and therefore had a wall built for it to grow upon. I think the man was wiser far who left the wall alone, and changed the tree. There are people who are very apt to alter Scripture to suit their views, pulling out one word until it is never so long, dropping another, or completely changing the meaning of it, though everybody knows that it is the forced and unnatural one, or else tinkering up a text till it will fit some crank or peculiarity of theirs. This is not reverence; it is not treating God’s Word as it ought to be treated. God’s Word is no nose of wax to he shapen according to our fancies—or anybody else’s. Though nobody else should say what he means God always does. He would not have us talk in language that is capable of half-a-dozen meanings; and he does not talk so himself. He speaks so plainly that if we are candid and desire to know what he means it is not difficult to do so, especially if we go to him for it. Let us, then, take this advice, and try the spirits whether they be of God, and, like the noble Bereans, search the Scriptures whether these things be so, and so read the Scriptures and try what we read.

And, lastly, the text is significantly followed by, “Give attendance to reading, to exhortation.” I will, therefore, say, in the seventh place,

VII. READ AND TELL OUT what you read.

This will be an effectual way of imprinting it upon your own memory. When thou readest a passage of Scripture, and hast any enjoyment therein, go to thy sick neighbour and tell what God hath said to thee. If thou meetest an ignorant one when thou knowest somewhat of the things of God, tell them to him. Nations are enriched by the interchanges of commerce, and so are Christians. We each have something that another has not, and he has something that we need. Let us trade together. “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another,” and it is very good that they should do so. Our talk is alas! too often very frivolous; there is much chaff but little wheat. If we would but talk more of Scripture, and establish it as a fashion among Christians, we should grow much faster and stronger, and be wiser in the things of the kingdom.

I know one who, when he was a young man, read all day until evening came, and then went every evening and preached. The preaching in the evening what he had read during the day stamped and fastened the truths upon his own mind, and made them unspeakably profitable to him. When you have read for an hour or so, spend another half-hour in communicating to a child, or a servant, or a seeker, or to some bed-ridden saint, the thing that has enriched and helped you.

How I would press this upon you every one, my dear brethren and sisters, who are members of this church. We owe very many of the conversions that have been wrought here to the personal exertions of our church-members. God owns our ministry, but he also owns yours. It is our delight at church-meetings that when converts come they often have to say that the word preached from the pulpit was blessed to them, and yet I think that almost as often they say it was the word spoken in some of the classes, or in the pews; for not a few of you have been spiritual parents to strangers who have dropped in. Do this still. Let our congregation be full of these spiritual sharpshooters, who shall pick out, each man his man, and who shall fire with the gun of the gospel directly at each individual.

Of course, if you know nothing, you can tell nothing. If you have never read anything which by the blessing of God has been brought powerfully home to your own soul, do not attempt to speak to others. There must be something begun in your own soul first, but if you have been brought into personal contact with divine truth, let it be the first impulse of your soul to

      “Tell to the sinners round
      What a dear Saviour you have found.”

The woman of Samaria left her water-pot and went into the city, and said, “Come, see a man that told me, all things that ever I did; is not this the Christ?” My beloved, let us do the same. I do not know a living thing, even a wild flower in the hedge, but seeks to prolong the existence of its species. The foxglove sheds its seeds all adown the banks; no matter how tiny the flower may be it seeks to produce its like. So you, Christian! who are the noblest work of God, should not be satisfied unless your life is a continual spreading around of the truth which has been made vital to you, and will be new life to others.

What a grand crown and close to this night’s service it would be could we be used of God to bring a soul from darkness to light, and from slavery to liberty. We cannot do it of ourselves; but God may help us. Would you not walk a mile, ay! many miles to do it? Well, you need not walk miles. It is quite possible that the very person, who, as it were by chance, is sitting next to you to-night, is the person whom God has predestinated to be blessed, and to be blessed by you. At any rate, try it. There shall be nothing lost, there may be much gained. Why hath God taught the truth to thee? For thine own good? Ay, but thou art not to be selfish? Be thou, at least, as unselfish as the three lepers, who, when they found the Syrian camp deserted and an abundance of gold and silver, said, “We do not well to stay here; this is a day of good tidings; let us go into the city and tell.” Dear friend, thou doest not well if thou readest only for thyself. Having read go out and tell what thou hast read, and the blessing shall come back into thine own bosom, even if it go not out to others, and thou shalt be blessed, and God shall be glorified.

I would press this, in conclusion, upon some of you who are not converted. Often men have come to Christ by reading the Scriptures. Attend upon a preached ministry, but do also read and search the Scriptures. I recollect when I was seeking Christ I read Doddridge’s “Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul,” but the book muddled me much, though it is a very admirable book in some respects. Then I read Alleine’s “Alarm,” and then Baxter’s “Call to the Unconverted,” and all these only ploughed my heart more and more. But the comfort which I got came out of God’s Word. It was from that precious text. “Look unto me and be ye saved, all ye ends of the earth.” Then I got light.

Turn you away from all human books to the divine book, and from all human helpers to him upon whom help is laid, and who is mighty to save.

Read God’s love in the Book of Atonement upon the cross, written in the crimson lines of the Saviour’s flowing blood and streaming veins.

Look to Christ, and trust in him, and you shall live. May

God bless you for Jesu’s sake.

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