Bible Study Habits from an Expert
October 22, 2000 | Andrew Davis
Please, if you would, take your Bibles and open to Psalm 119. This is our third and at least for the time being, final look at this Psalm. This is a long Psalm, and there is so much in here that I probably could have kept preaching on it for another several months. What I would like you to do is study it for yourself. I have one simple goal this morning, and that's to inspire and to induce you to study the scriptures for yourself. I can't compete with you. I don't desire to. I have half an hour of your time. I don't desire to compete with the things that God can do in your life, if you just give yourself to diligence study of Scripture every single day, that you would get up a little bit earlier, maybe even a lot earlier and open the Scripture for yourself.
This will probably be my most practical sermon to you. I believe in establishing practice with theology, everything that the Scripture commands us to do, there's a theology behind it, a reason for it, but I'm going to just speak to your Bible study habits from an expert, and who could be more expert than a writer of a Psalm, like Psalm 119. This was a man who clearly saturated his mind in Scripture, and I want to learn from him how he studied the Bible, and that's our desire. The answer to my question is, there is one more expert, and that is the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspired the Scripture. If you're a believer in Jesus Christ, He lives within you. One of the functions the Spirit has in your life is to illuminate, to open up the Scripture so that it's not a closed book for you anymore, so the text of Scripture just leap off the page and makes sense to you in a way they hadn't made sense before.
That's a beautiful thing when it happens. Powerful, and that's my desire. I want to whet your appetite. I want to talk to you about the habits of your heart. Robert Bellah, a sociologist wrote a book called Habits of the Heart. It was a best seller, I think in the ‘80s, a sociological analysis of the United States. I have no interest in following the lines of his argumentation, but I found the title of his book intriguing, and that's all I did, I just lifted that title and I want to know, what are the habits of your heart? How are you with Scripture? What do you do with the Bible? How do you handle it? The fact is, when I began my sermon this morning, I asked you to open your Bibles to Psalm 119, many of you did that, and for those of you that are holding a Bible in your hand, I also want to help you to understand just what a gift that is.
For three quarters of the life of the church, most commonly lay people could not do what you're doing right now, namely to hold the Bible in your hands and to be able to look down and to read it and to understand it. Some of you have seen this book which I really enjoy, The Life Millennium, pictures and illustrations and stories of the 100 most important events and people of the past 1,000 years. For those of you that looked at this, do you remember what number one was? The number one most significant event in the past thousand years to the editors of “Life Magazine” was the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. I'm trying to think what would motivate editors of “Life” to think this way. I think it's probably true, although there are other things that God has done that are just as mighty, and so there we could have an interesting debate, but this is very significant. They think it's significant because it's the beginning of the Modern Age, the expansion of the Information Age that is just pouring over us now like a deluge.
In the “USA Today” newspaper, it was talking about the fact that if all the information just being poured out now by various means, internet, satellite, television, all this, were consolidated to paper and put on floppy disks, how long will it be? Before floppy disks had gone the way of all flesh, but if they're all consigned to floppy disks and you stack them up, it would be 2 million miles high, one year of information. Are you keeping up with all that folks? Are you doing your reading? Are you studying? What a deluge of information. It could be that that's what they have in mind. They trace it back to when this printer, Johannes Gutenberg in 1455, invented a new system of movable type. He was not the first, the Koreans and Chinese had movable type, but he developed some techniques that were so advanced and so clear-thinking that, in effect in the West, printing wasn't changed again until the middle of the 19th century, not substantially.
So for four centuries, he charted the course for how printing was to be done. You would not have had a Bible five centuries ago. You would not have been able to turn in your Bibles to Psalm 119 and look down at it, because you couldn't have afforded a Bible. The Bible was written by hand, by scribes, by monks who would spend years and years on one copy of Scripture, therefore, the only person who would have a Bible would be somebody who could afford to pay for that labor. That would be a king, a prince, potentate, a noble, but not you and me. We would not have available to us a copy of the Scripture, furthermore, if you wanted to read the Bible, you'd go into a local church, for example, a parish church in England, you would find the Bible chained to a podium, and it'll be a huge ponderous book. You would flip to the pages and you look down and guess what, you couldn't read, you're illiterate, but even if you could, I wonder if you'd be able to understand it.
That leads me to the third most significant event according to “Life”, number two is Columbus discovers the New World. Number three is Luther, Knox, Martin Luther. The contribution that Luther made to this is that when you look down at Psalm 119, it's not written in Latin. How many of you can read Latin? Luther believed that every common person should have a copy of the Scripture in his or her own language, and said the simple plowman or the maid with a copy of Scripture is more powerful than all the ecumenical councils without it. That's what he taught. Because of these two great events, you have the ability to turn in your Bibles to Psalm 119 and look down. My question is not so much, did you turn in your Bibles just now when I ask you to do it? Have you done it this week? That's what I'm asking. Did you turn in your Bible sometime this week?
I'm not trying to do anything except just to motivate you and encourage you to do that. Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." How long will it take you to absorb all of this? It’s a long journey. George Müller felt it was going to take a long time. George Müller, he, of the 2,000 orphans that he cared for daily, recorded 30-50,000 answers to specific prayer in his life. He kept a prayer journal, 30-50,000 specific answers to prayer. He said some of them that same day, many of them that same hour. You think surely a man like George Müller just kind of walks with Jesus, doesn't need the scriptures. He said the will of God has absolutely nothing to do with impressions on the mind, but everything to do with the word of God. All of his prayers came from text of Scripture that he would pray back to God, promises of God. He read through the Bible 200 times in his lifetime. You may not think much of that, not a great accomplishment. How many of you have read through the Bible in one year? If you have, you realize you've got to keep a strong pace, you've got to keep going, three or four pages a day in my Bible, three or four pages a day. Then you're through once in one year, he read it over 200 times, that would be that he read through the Bible three or four times a year. So that'd be about 14-16 pages of reading of Scripture every day, just saturated his mind in Scripture, and here we are talking about him 100 some odd years later, the spiritual legacy was immense. What is our spiritual legacy going to be? I really think it's directly connected to how faithful you are to open the Bible and read. I really don't think we'll have much to offer of eternal benefit if we don't. Jesus said, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Apart from me, you can do nothing. If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given you."
Do his words abide in you? That's what I want to talk to you about today. I want to give you specific practical hints on how to study the Bible, how to make the Bible's words live inside your heart in your life, and I'm getting them from Psalm 119. I'm not going to read through the whole Psalm, but I want to just read the first three verses to remind you what the purpose of the Psalm is. "Blessed are they whose ways are blameless who walk according to the law of the Lord. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong, they walk in his ways." Isn't that beautiful? Psalm 119 is given to bless you, it's given to be a blessing. It's only begun to bless my life, I've learned so much from studying this Psalm, there's so much in here, and now we're going to get really practical and see what the Psalmist says about how to study the word. He's the expert, and we're going to learn from him.
How to study the Bible: Bring the proper attitude to your study
Let's start with attitude. What attitude do we carry to our daily study of the Bible? What is our way of thinking? When I was trained as a missionary, I was given something called an entry posture diagram. What this means is that as you come into every cross-cultural interaction on the mission field, your entry posture makes the whole difference, it has to do with an attitude. If you come into that cross-cultural setting with an attitude of suspicion, fear, mistrust, and then they set before you, a meal that they've labored over for six hours, but it smells strange to you, will you eat it? They can see, they look in the face, they can tell, and so the attitude you bring to that meal makes all the difference in the eating of the meal, so it is with the study of Scripture. What does Psalm 119 teach us about our entry posture or attitude as we come? The first thing it says is that we need to have a seeking and a yearning heart when we come to Scripture, there needs to be a hunger. I find the more I study Scripture the hungrier I get. It's when I get away from God and away from Scripture, I get not so hungry, I'm satisfied. This world starts to feel more comfortable to me, like this is my place, this is my world, but we need to bring a hunger to Scripture. We need to come and say, "Teach me, oh God, I'm hungry, I want something." Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied." So there's a seeking and a yearning with all your heart. Look at verse 30, "I have chosen the way of truth, I have set my heart on your laws." You see the determination, the hunger, the mindset. Verse 45 says, "I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts." Verse 58, "I have sought your face with all my heart, be gracious to me according to your promise." I'm hungry for you. I want you. Verse 94, "Save me, for I am yours; I have sought out your precepts." Do you come to your Bible study time with a hungering-seeking heart? That's your entry posture. That's your attitude. We tend to be half-hearted creatures, don't we? Half-hearted, but we are to be whole-hearted in our study of the Word of God.
The second entry posture or attitude that we should carry is one of awe, fear and trembling. We are about to hear the word of the living eternal God, He's going to speak to me now. He's going to say something to me. The same Word that created the universe, the same powerful God who's made all of these things is going to say something to me now. That's a fearful thing, isn't it? God is going to talk to me. aA a matter of fact, the Israelites, when they were around the mountain, said, "Moses, Please tell God to stop talking because if He keeps talking we will die." God agreed, saying, “ That's a good thing. I'll speak through prophets from now on." That's exactly what it says. “What they've said is good, from now on, I will raise up a prophet like you to speak.” Who is the final word? Jesus Christ, but we can't handle God speaking directly, so He speaks through the written word and the indwelling spirit, but He's speaking nonetheless. So we come with a measure of awe. Now we have different ways of esteeming people, even in churches, we have different ways of esteeming, who is of high esteem and who is not so much. Who does God esteem though? That matters, doesn't it? “This is the one I esteem,” [Isaiah 66:2], "he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at my word." That's the one God esteems. Is that you? Are you humble, contrite in spirit and trembling at God's word? Look at Psalm 119:120, "My flesh trembles in fear of you, I stand in awe of your laws." Isn't that incredible? Verse 161, this is in a context of persecution, "Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart tremble at your word." Do you see that? “I’m not afraid of them. I'm not afraid of the rulers, I'm afraid of your Word.” "Do not fear" said Jesus, “the one who kills the body, and after that can do nothing to you.I'll tell you who to fear, fear the one who after the destruction of body can throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” The psalmist does tremble at God as Moses did. So when you come to the Scripture, come with a hungry yearning heart and come with a trembling heart, you're going to hear from God today.
Thirdly, come with an obedient heart. Verse 34, "Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart." In other words, I'm coming with an attitude that I'm going to hear something I'm going to need to do, something's going to come to me and I'm going to have to obey it, and I want to obey it. Verse 145, "I call with all my heart, answer me, O Lord, and I will obey your decrees." Spurgeon says, "If you come to Scripture holding on to darling sins... " isn't that strange? “Darling sins”, “you will learn nothing from Scripture.” If you come with a disobedient heart, if there's something you're holding on to and you already know God hates it and wants it out of your life, and you have made no effort to put that sin to death, death actually, you've made a truce. The two of you have made a covenant together, you're going to continue on together, then don't expect to hear anything from God when you open the Scripture. You've got to come willing to get rid of any and every sin in your life. I'm not talking about sinless perfection. We all stumble in many ways, said James, I'm not talking about that. “If anyone says he doesn't sin, he's a liar,” [1 John], that's not what I'm talking about. It’s your attitude toward the sin. We don't marry sin, there are no darling sins, every one of them, every last one of them must be put to death, and so we come with an obedient heart.
Fourthly, we come with an expectant heart, we come expecting to get something. If you come to a wealthy king or potentate and you know that he's lavish and generous, and you come into his presence, don't you expect that there may be something for you too. God is generous, his resources are limitless, his wisdom cannot be measured. We should come expecting to get something. Look at Verse 131, "I opened my mouth and pant, longing for your commands." I'm expecting to get something out of this time, this isn't going to be dry as dust, I'm looking forward to my Bible time, I'm expecting something out of this.
Fifth, be thankful. Verse 62 is a challenge. "At midnight, I rise to give you thanks for the Bible." My paraphrase for your righteous laws. Have any of you have done that this week? I haven't, truth be told, get up and set your alarm at midnight and get up and say, "God, thank you for the Bible." But that's what he does, he's just so thankful for the Scripture, he's just thankful we have a book like this, the Word of God written.
Summary, what is your entry posture? As you enter your time with God and his Word, do so with a whole heart, a hungry heart, a yearning heart, one which trembles with awe at the thought of hearing God speak, ready to obey anything He tells you to do no matter how difficult, one that's fully expects to hear him speak and one that is thankful in advance for what you're going to hear. That's your entry posture, attitude.
6 Practical Guidelines about how to study the Bible
What about actions and habits? Is there any practical advice in Psalm 119 about how to study the Bible? Yes, I think so. First of all, it's just the issue of habit. Verse 56 says, "This has been my practice." The implication is habit. "I obey your precepts." I've made a habit of this, some people have studied human nature. I don't know if this is true or not, but I've seen similar things happen in my life that if you do something of a daily nature, every day for a month, it becomes a habit, good or bad. I'd like to harness that and use it for good. Why not do a 30-day experiment? For 30 days, do such and such with the Word, memorize a verse a day, something like that. For 30 days, meditate on something. For the 30 days, extend or double or triple your ordinary length of time in reading Scripture.
Secondly, in terms of action, prayer for instruction and insight from God. We've already talked about that, but it's so important, I want all of you to see yourselves as spiritual beggars before the Scripture. “Blessed are the spiritual beggars, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” If God doesn’t give, you won't get it. I don't care if you read it the rest of your life, you’ll never get it. Repetition does not ensure understanding. Did you hear what I just said? Repetition does not ensure understanding. You can be sitting in church all your life and never get it. A prophecy of Isaiah, "Be ever hearing, but never understanding, be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” God gives understanding. Ask him for it. The psalmist does it so many times, I can't even count them. Verse 18, "Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” Pray that every time you open Scripture, "Open my eyes that I might understand or see wonderful things from your law." Verse 34, "Give me understanding and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart." I could read one after the other.
Recently I heard a speaker, Jim Elliff, and he was talking about a boy that he knew who was slightly retarded, but he loved the Bible, he just loved to read. He'd read a line of Scripture and he'd stop and get a strange look on his face and he'd scrunch his eyes up and say, "What does that mean, Lord?" He'd wait a minute, and then he'd read it out loud again and get that same look and say, "What does that mean, Lord?" Then he'd read it out loud again and say, "What does that mean, Lord?" Pause, and then his look would change, he said, "Oh, that's what that means, Lord." I'm too intelligent, I don't need to do that. That's just pride. You do need to do it. You'll never understand if you don't humbly come to God and ask him for it. Are you a spiritual beggar before the Scripture? Our God is generous with wisdom, very generous, especially over Scripture.
Thirdly, reading and recounting. “With my lips, I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.” You read it and then you speak God's words after him. You read and speak what He says again. What could be more blessed than having your mouth say words that God's mouth has already said. Like father, like son or daughter, He's like us, we want to imitate him, and the words He spoke, and we want to recount.
Number four, meditation. Again, there are many scriptures on this. Verse 15, "I meditate on your precepts, and consider your ways." Verse 23, "The rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees." I don't care what kind of earthly forces are arrayed against me, I just want to meditate on Scripture. What is meditation? We need to be really careful about this. People are really into meditation these days. A lot of it's coming from the East, the oriental type of disaffected or disconnected meditation, where you're trying to get away from linear thought, getting away from kind of projecting yourself out and all this. This is damaging and dangerous. When I'm thinking about meditation, I'm not thinking about that. I'm thinking of a historical grammatical kind of meditation. What do I mean by that? I mean, historical. What has God done in the past as revealed in Scripture. How has he revealed himself? What kind of God is he? Thinking about the history of Scripture, what God has done. Also grammatical like that boy, just going over it line by line and saying, "What does this mean?" and then looking at verbs and adjectives and connected phrases like "therefore" and "so that" so that we follow a train of thought. That's what meditation is. It's like a cow carefully chewing it over slowly word by word, thinking about it. You can't hurry it. You've got to go through it and understand.
And then memorization. Memorization is very important. I really think meditation and memorization go very beautifully together. Some of you say, "Pastor, I know you talk so much about memorization." I actually don't think I talk about it as much a Scripture does. How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word, Verse 11, "Your word, I have stored up or hidden in my heart that I might not sin against you. If you abide in me and my words abide in you." What is that but memorization? I don't know what else it could be. How do Christ’s words abide in us if we don't memorize them? They're printed on our hearts and our minds. Realize if the whole Gutenberg thing is true, you would not have had copies of your Scripture, and so if you wanted to meditate day and night, what would you have had to do? Have it memorized, unless you are king in ancient Judaism or a priest, other than that, you had to have it memorized. Now, you may say, "I can't memorize."
My missions professor told me a story about a man who determined that he was going to memorize John 3:16. I’ve asked a number of people,"Do you memorize Scripture?" "Yep, I know John 3:16." That's good, it's a start. It's better than not knowing John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not on perish but have eternal life." This man worked every day for two and a half months and could not recite that verse without help from the Scripture, and he said, “What is the matter with him? I mean, that's a pretty simple word.” The missions professor said to me, "The amazing thing about him was not that he was that dense, it was that he didn't give up." Think about it, if you were trying to do something like that and after two and half months couldn't do it, do you think you'd have given up by then? I think I would have. He didn't give up. Finally, on the third month, he could do it. Then over the next seven years, God opened his mind to memorize almost 2000 Verses of Scripture. God gave him a gift. You're saying can God can control my mind like that. Yes, he did it negatively to Nebuchadnezzar, he turned his mind into that of an animal. He can do the reverse thing with you, He can turn your mind into that of a Scripture memorizer. I've written a booklet on an approach to extended memorization of Scripture. This is available to anybody free of cost. This is just an approach... It's a humble title “An Approach to the Extended Memorization of Scripture.” This is just something I have found useful to me.
Sixthly, all hours of the day. Just listen to these verses. Verse 55, "In the night, I remember your name, O Lord, and I keep your law." Verse 62, "At midnight, I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws." Verse 147, "I rise before dawn and cry for help. I put my hope in your word." Verse 147-148, "My eyes stay open through the watches of the night that I may meditate on your promises. I rise before dawn, my eyes stay open through the watches of the night." Verse164, "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws." The monks used to divide their days into segments, and they set them aside for prayer and meditation on Scripture. "Oh, we're too busy,” you say; then you're too busy. Daniel was the prime minister of the Babylonian kingdom. Three times a day, he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God as he had done before[Daniel 6].
Your Response & Commitment to studying the Bible
The third category, responses and commitments. We've looked at the entry posture, your attitude, we've looked at specific habits, practical habits. Thirdly, what about your response and commitment? Number one, searching your heart in your life by the Word. This is something that you must do. Look at Verse 26, "I recounted my ways, and you answered me. Teach me your decrees." What does it mean to recount your ways? What it means is you take the Scripture and lay it out, and you take your life and lay it out and compare the two. What do you think is going to happen when you do that? You're going to start seeing sin, and as you lay these things out, the sin starts to bubble to the surface and you start to say, "I don't want to do that anymore, I hate my sin, I want to turn away from it."
Look at Verse 59. "I have considered my ways and I've turned my steps to your statutes." I've considered my ways and I've turned now to your statutes; that's repentance, and the Scripture produces it in us. As we read, we say, "Oh, I'm not faithful here, I need to change." Look at 168. "I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you." “All my ways are known to you, you know it all, Lord.” Then the final verse of the Psalm 119:176, "I have strayed like a lost sheep, seek your servant for I have not forgotten your commands.” “Come and get me, Lord, I'm drifting, I'm wandering. Come and get me, bring me back." Scripture keeps you safe. Do you see it? Keeps you safe.
The second most important prayer you can pray is to pray for illumination, "Teach me, Lord," and pray that you may obey. Verse 5, “Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees.” Verse 10, "I seek you with all my heart. Do not let me stray from your commands. Keep me from deceitful ways," Verse 29, "Be gracious to me through your law," Verse 35, "Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight." One after the other. The psalmist says, "I see what I need to do. I see clearly the obedience I must give, now work it in me." Work in me. Hebrews 13:21, “Work in me what is pleasing to you, O God." I think that's our responsibility to obey. Right? Well, it is, but God enables us to obey, it is not for a man to direct his steps[Proverbs]. Oh, that's humbling, but it's true. You try to turn over a new leaf, make a resolution. It will not work. But with the power of God, the resolution works.
Thirdly, determine choosing. This is where the will kicks in. Verse 30, "I have chosen the way of truth, I have set my heart on your laws.” Verse 112, "My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.” You choose to do what God wants you to do.
Number four, promises and vows. Make promises to God and keep them. The psalmist makes all kinds of promises and vows to the Lord, and not just this psalmist, but other psalmists as well.
Scripture interprets Scripture. Look at Verse 57, "You are my portion, O Lord, I have promised to obey your words." And Verse 106, "I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.” Those are two resolutions. Do you make resolutions? New Years. That's too long. Make them every month. Every month, come to Scripture and say, "Alright, Lord, what do you want me to do this month? How can I grow this month? And with your help, by the power of the Spirit, I'm going to do these things." Then when you fail to keep your resolutions, confess it to God, it helps you realize how much you need a Savior. Come and make those resolutions again and be determined to follow him.
Fifth and finally, worship and rejoicing. Finish by worshipping the God who has spoken to you. Do you realize that all of this is about producing spiritual worshippers, that's you and me? That's what this whole thing is about. That's what church is about, that's what the gospel is for; to promote eternal spiritual worship in you and me of God himself. The Word accomplishes that, that's the purpose of the Word, to produce worship in us eternally. Verse 48, “I lift your hands to my command, to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees.” Verse 108, "Accept O Lord, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws." More than anything, remember, every command of God is good. I don't fear any word from God because He's good and his commands are good. Verse 68, "You are good, and you do what is good, teach me your decrees." Praise him and worship him for who He is and for what He's done. The Scripture is given that you may know God, that you may have life and have it abundantly. “Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
Please, please be diligent with Scripture this week. God has given you commands, read the Scriptures, obey them. Someday, you will stand before God and you will give an account for what you've just heard. You will not be able to say, "No one told me how to study the Bible." Study the Bible this week. Don't let Satan snatch the seed off that hardened path, but let it sink in to soften soil where it produces good fruit. Will you close with me in prayer?
Heavenly Father, we thank you from our hearts for your goodness in giving us this Word. Thank you for Psalm 119 and its beauty and its perfection, Oh, Holy Spirit, moving us to study your Word that we may be faithful to do what's written there in. Father, for those that do not know you, oh Lord, I pray that today would be the day of salvation, that they would come to Christ, who is the living and eternal Word, and that they might have eternal life. And then, oh Lord, they will have a hunger and a thirst for your written word. For those of us who are already Christians, increase our hunger and thirst for your Word. And for those here who are dead toward your Word, who have no interest in Scripture, who are struggling with that, oh God, revive, renew them or convert them that they might know you. Through the blood of Christ, Oh God, make us hungry and thirsty for your Word, we pray it in Jesus' name. Amen.