Personal devotions consist of Scripture reading and prayer. Scripture reading ought always to be first, because Scripture is God’s speech to us and we need God’s speech to us and his word in our minds before we can say anything to him. Our prayers are always a repetition of what God says, or our prayers are rmly based on and in uenced by what God says. If we are very troubled, for example, we bring our troubles to God because God says to us, “Cast all your care upon him, for he careth for you” (I Peter 5:7). And that very verse tells us how to cast our cares on him, for it first says, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God” (verse 6). If God did not say to us that he cares for us, we would never dare to bring our cares to him, for he who created all things and is so great that he is greater than the whole universe, can hardly be interested in and concerned for our little problems. But he is; he himself says so. And even if it is difficult to imagine how this is possible, we believe what the Bible says.
That is just an example. We will talk more about that when we talk about prayer as a part of our devotions. But now we are talking about reading Scripture. There are some dangers that we must avoid when we read Scripture. Let me list some of them.
1) One danger is that we jump around all over Scripture, every day reading a passage from a different place. This is, generally speaking, not the best way to read the Bible. It is better to read one section or one book. By one section, I mean, for example, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Or by one book, I mean Genesis, or Judges, or the Gospel According to John.
2) Depending on how familiar we are with Scripture, we ought to read the simpler passages before the more difficult; and read the more difficult only after we have improve our ability to read Scripture with understanding. It is better to read Acts than Ezekiel, or I Samuel than the prophecy of Zechariah. We ought to go from the simpler to the more difficult. Et, we must not be fooled by what appears to us as something very simple. John’s epistles and gospel may look easy, but they are the most profound books in the whole Bible. When I was first in the ministry, it took me so long to make a sermon that I looked for simple texts. John’s epistles seemed to me to be exactly what I was looking for. I was thankful to God that I did some work on the epistle before I began to preach on it, for I soon learned that John’s writings were no the simplest parts of Scripture, but the most difficult. And so I abandoned the idea of preaching on John’s writings. Since then, I have ventured from time to time into John’s writing (especially his epistles), but I never felt very satisfied with the sermons I did preach. I kept thinking: There is a lot more in the text than I can see. In an effort to understand more fully these epistles and John’s gospel, I have read them for my own personal devotions. That has helped.
3) We must not try to read a large and long passage every day. It is better to read two verses and know what they mean than 50 verses and not really know what they are about. I do not recommend these many programs that tell you how to read through the whole Bible in one year. That program is simply getting someone to read a lot, but understand almost nothing. There is no profit in reading merely for reading’s sake; so that I can say, “I read the whole Bible in one year!”
Avoiding those dangers will help us with our reading of Scripture. My father used to tell us, and I found that to be true, that when we are children or young people we like the historical parts of Scripture the best. When we are adults, we like the “meaty” parts of Scripture the best: the epistles and prophets. But when we get old, our favorite is always the Psalms. I find myself turning constantly to the Psalms, and how I love to sing them.
I do not mean that the Psalms are not very precious to any child of God. They are, indeed, because they are a complete biography of the Christian’s spiritual life. There is no single experience of the child of God which is not found in the Psalms. We can see ourselves reflected in them on every page. But be that as it may, there are some rules to follow in reading the Scriptures – if they are to be truly devotional and be a part of our personal devotions.
The most important rule is that we understand what we read. There is not much sense in reading the Bible if we have no sense of its meaning.
Once again, I use as an example from our family devotions. From the time our children were small until they married and left the house, we were careful to be sure they understood what we read at our mealtimes. To do that, I would take the time to explain what we were going to read before we would actually read the passage. Just as soon as the children were learning to read, even if they knew only less than half the words, they would take their turn reading a verse. Throughout the reading, every child was encouraged to stop the reading and ask what something meant. This frequently opened the door to discussions (especially as the children grew older), and sometimes we would only read a verse or two because of the long discussions we would have. In fact, we would sometimes have Bible Dictionaries at hand to look up strange words, such as: what Ed was; what is an acacia tree; what is shittim wood; where was Tyre and Zidon in relation to Canaan; etc.
The point I am trying to make is that understanding is crucial. A very rule in order to understand a text is that we do not, first of all, ask ourselves the question: What does this text mean to me and for me? How does God speak to me? How does this text help me? This sort of approach is self-centered and will not have good results in coming to an understanding of God’s Word. The very first question we must ask ourselves when we have read a verse or part of a verse is: What is God saying about himself in this verse?
I cannot emphasize this enough. Are we so self-centered that we are interested only in ourselves and really care nothing about God? If so, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. If my wife and I have been forced to be separated from each other for a while, and I receive a letter from her, then my great interest in the letter is not: What does she say about me? I can’t even imagine reading her letter in that way. I would, I think, skip over it all and try to find those parts of the letter in which she talks about herself: How she is doing? Is she well? How is she keeping busy? Does she have any problems?
If you should ask me why I am so interested in what she says about herself, my answer would be: I love her because God has given her to me to take care of. I want to know how she is doing.
The Bible is God’s letter to his church. He does not give us this letter, in the first place, to talk about us; he gives us this letter so that he may tell us about himself. Never forget: Scripture is the infallibly inspired word of God in which he reveals himself to us as he is in Jesus Christ. We cannot properly know what the Bible says about us, unless we know about what the Bible says about God.
How can we know that we are God’s people unless we know that God has chosen us eternally in Christ in the decree of election? How can we know we are his people unless we know all about the suffering and death of Christ on the cross? This is so true because I know that I am a terrible sinner and that I cannot be God’s child except in the suffering and death of Christ. The more I know about God and Christ, the more I can and do know what I have to know about myself.
Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion says that there are two things we have to know. We have to know God and we have to know ourselves. But the two are in that order: the knowledge of God rst, and only then the knowledge of ourselves.
Let us not be sel sh, self-centred, spoiled brats in our reading of Scripture. Let us take our cue from David: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).The result will be that the starting point of our devotions will be the awareness of the greatness and glory of God. This is important so that we do not talk to God as if He is our next door neighbor. And, not only that, but it will be the way to understand how great God is and how small we are; how great, therefore, is his mercy and love to us poor sinners, and how undeserving we are. Sometimes our devotions will consist of little more than a cry of thanksgiving to God and a song of praise to him who is so great and so glorious. When we attain that height, we have begun to understand what devotions are all about.
I have some more things to say about our reading of Scripture, but they must wait.
Questions for discussion:
1. Why is it better to take our devotions from larger sections of Scripture rather than jumping around from one text to another?
2. Why does a child of God want to know as much as he can about God?
3. Why is doctrine important for our personal devotions?
4. Some Christians read a devotional book (like Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening) for devotions. Is this a proper way to have devotions? What is best? To add a devotional book to our meditation of Scripture, or to read a devotional book in place of our meditating on Scripture?
5. Is it permissible and helpful to look up commentaries on a verse we are using for devotions?
6. Is it helpful to make use of Bible Dictionaries or Biblical Encyclopedias to help us understand a passage better?
Written by: Prof. Herman Hanko | Issue 5