Note: For a long time I didn’t read my Bible every day. Thorns choked the path during free time: sports, other books, web surfing, etc. For the past few months, though, God has been working within me to make time (Phil 2:13). Perhaps these ideas will be of practical use…
This J.C. Ryle quote floored me with its simple truth:
Holiness is the habit of agreeing with the mind with God, in accordance as we find His mind described in Scripture. It is the habit of agreeing with God’s judgment – hating what He hates, loving what He loves- and measuring everything in this world by the standard of His Word. The person who most completely agrees with God is the one who is the most holy person.
Now, you can’t agree with God if you don’t know what He says, and that means reading and understanding the Word. However, I have terrible short-term memory. I read and often cannot recall what I have read. I glance back at the page and say: “oh yes yes, of course.” There must be a synapse missing in my head, a bug in my mental software that doesn’t allow the front-end to connect to the database. It’s frustrating. It’s like the man who forgets what he was like in James 1:23-24.
Just as there’s little value in visiting some museum just to check it off a list, there’s no spiritual value in reading the Bible just to say “been there, done that.” My attempts to “read the Bible in 7 minutes a day” or “read the Bible in a year” always failed miserably. Then, a few months ago, I was pondering why I recalled Romans much better than other books over the years. The reason hit me: I studied it in-depth years ago using Hodge’s commentary. Light bulb!
My new system is simple: I read a single chapter of a Bible book each day, then reread it slowly using a commentary. I meditate along the way, because reading without pondering what you’ve read is a useless exercise. You can’t read Scripture the way you read an airplane magazine and expect to get anywhere– These are the words of life! As I’m reading, God captures my attention through specific verses that I’d never pondered before. The overall “puzzle” starts to make more sense. The Word starts becoming “sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10). Lo and behold, this daily process has become, dare I say it, the beginning of a discipline. How invigorating! Move me onward, Lord! To cap off the session, I pray. This is easier to do after filling your head with Scripture. At times it becomes organic, as if you would positively burst if you do not pray. You read and ponder the Sermon on the Mount, for example, and repentance is not a rote affair, but something you do trembling.
With this simple system, a good (Reformed, of course!) commentary is invaluable. A good commentary is simply the interpetation of someone more advanced in the faith. It provides context. You learn that the Laodiceans were famous for making salve, and thus it makes more sense when Christ tells them to buy a salve from Him that will anoint their eyes and allow them to (spiritually) see. A commentary also provides practical application. When Luke 10:7 says that “a worker is entitled to his wages,” the commentator (Hendriksen in this case) tells you that those who devote themselves entirely to religious work should not be regarded as objects of charity: the congregation or denomination owes them a living! Ah, you think, what a fresh insight! Best of all, certain verses stick out that you never paid much attention to before, and now you read and ponder them. Faith and understanding grow as the Spirit works through the Word.
One big commentary no-no in my book is when writers (usually academics) spend much of their time taking on textual critics or seriously debating the absurd intepretations of modern heretics. Life is too short for that. Tell us instead what the text means and how to apply it, and interact with the interpretations of past giants. Some commentaries do it well. The hardback Banner of Truth commentaries are useful, although most were were written long ago and can be difficult to read (Crossway offers abridged versions of some of them, which I have not read). I like Matthew Henry very much [note: original post edited to remove inaccurate statement]. The Hendriksen / Kistemaker New Testament Commentaries are very good too and available online.
One issue with many of these commentaries, though, is that they are long. Many use more than 50 pages to review a single chapter; some take hundreds! On the other hand, the Reformation Study Bible is great for general reading and when travelling, but it does not have enough detail for study. Are there studies out there written by believing Reformed commentators that cover chapters in ~20 pages? This seems to me a good balance for daily reading and more in-depth study, while still leaving time for meditation/prayer and allowing for continued progress through Scripture. I prefer writings by pastors, those who’ve actually shepherded flocks, instead of merely academics. (Ryken and others have recently begun producing a “Reformed Expository Commentary” series. Perhaps those are worth a look; reviews are not plentiful. Anyone read one? I do have a book on Hebrews by Geoffrey Wilson, but have yet to read it. I’ve heard good things about Poythress’s “Returning King,” a guide to the Book of Revelation).