How to Read the Bible
READING should be thinking, and this is especially true in regard to the Bible. How many persons read and reread portions of the Bible without understanding them and sometimes without even trying to understand them! How can you get the most benefit out of reading the Bible?
There are certain requirements that are vital for successful reading of the Bible. One of them is to have the right frame of mind or mental attitude. This attitude should be like that of a trusting child toward its parent; for one is seeking instruction from his heavenly Father. One should be humble and teachable, divesting himself of preconceived notions so that he can be taught by God. Prayer to God, asking for wisdom and understanding, is important and shows that one recognizes the Holy Bible for what “it truthfully is, as the word of God.”—1 Thess. 2:13.
When reading the Bible, one must also consider his physical condition. It is difficult for the mind to be alert when one’s stomach is filled with food. If one is very tired it may be better to nap a few minutes or arrange for the reading period at a different time. There should be reasonable quietude, good lighting and some ventilation, especially in the summer.
Now as to the matter of when to read the Bible. Try to read the Bible every day. Set aside fifteen minutes or, better yet, a half hour. Some may find the time before breakfast; others may find a noontime rest period ideal; and still others may find reading the Bible shortly before bedtime the best arrangement.
Where should you begin reading? If you have never read the Bible through at least once, then it is good to do so, so as to get the over-all view. Indeed, one of the vital aspects in good reading is to get the overall picture, and this also applies to individual chapters of the Bible. Once you have read the Bible through consecutively, you may wish to read the Bible in a different way, that is, selecting certain books or chapters to read. Many Bible students try to read at least a chapter a day, selecting the chapter in which is located the day’s text as found in the current Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This has proved an excellent arrangement and has made their meditation on the day’s text much more fruitful.
THINK TO UNDERSTAND
What is reading? “Reading,” says Professor William H. Armstrong in his book Study Is Hard Work, “is thinking. Don’t forget that important statement. . . . Reading consists of balancing, weighing, and comparing the ideas that you extract from the printed page. That is what thinking is.” Unfortunately, “reading, as practiced by most people,” comments Ernest Dimmit in The Art of Thinking, “is nothing but a method of not thinking.” Yes, many persons read so as NOT TO THINK! They immerse themselves in popular novels and magazine stories and get emotional thrills; but such reading is not thinking. Reading, for many persons, is a way of killing time under a dignified name.
When reading the Bible, guard against the passive state of mind. Apply the principles of good studying. “Far too often we ‘study’ our lessons with the mind out of focus,” says the volume This Is the Way to Study, “in the vain hope that looking at a printed page will somehow let its contents brush off on us without our having to think at all . . . Mere reading isn’t studying, anyway; discard the notion that you are studying when all you are doing is allowing a train of impressions to flow passively through your mind. No practice employed under the pretense of learning could be much more wasteful. . . . Plan to spend not more than one half of your study period in reading your lesson. Use the other half in doing something with what you learn. Think about what you have studied. . . . Stop after each paragraph, section and chapter and repeat the sense of what you have read. If the meaning is hazy or uncertain, clear up the matter in your mind before trying to go further.”
So, then, once you have the over-all view, mere coverage of material in the Bible is not your goal in Bible reading. Some persons like to tell others how many times they have read the Bible. Each time they start again they readily pass over material without understanding. Unless you give about half of your time period to reflection, the time you read may bring but little benefit. This means that one’s pace will be slow, since meditation and understanding are the objective, not mere coverage of pages. Because of its nature, the Bible does not reward the hasty glance with deep and abiding insight and discernment.
Stressing thinking, yes, pondering, the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “Ponder over these things.” And again: “Give constant thought to what I am saying; the Lord will really give you discernment in all things.” (1 Tim. 4:15; 2 Timothy 2:7) Timothy was to do more than merely read Paul’s letters; he was to ponder the principles contained therein. Such principles are rules of action, and this young overseer had to think on how and when he was going to apply these principles. He needed to have the principles well in mind so that when problems came up he could say: ‘This is the way we go, and this is the principle that applies.’ Thus by thinking and meditating Timothy would gain discernment. Divine discernment would come, not from a passive state of mind, but by ‘pondering over these things.’
PERSONAL APPLICATION AND QUESTIONS
What are some aids to productive reading of the Holy Bible? First, there is the matter of personal application. The reader of the Bible must be open to new insights into himself even though they are painful; and, above all, he has to be ready to revise or change his attitudes and actions in the direction of those insights. So as you read be on the lookout for any principles that apply to your life. Ask yourself: How does this affect my life? Does this call on me to make any adjustments to bring my attitude or actions into harmony with this expression of the divine will? For example, when reading Paul’s counsel, “Keep doing all things free from murmurings and arguments,” the true servant of God searches his heart to see if he is really conforming in this regard to the divine will.—Phil. 2:14.
So as the Christian reads the Bible he is continually alert to find and apply principles that are a guide to his daily living, and not only that: He also considers how texts in the material he is reading support Bible truths that he discusses in his Kingdom ministry. So that he can use these texts in the future he makes note of them. A minister may find that he often refers to Revelation 21:4 to show others that death inherited from Adam will be destroyed; so in reading the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians, he will make a note of the text, “For he must rule as king until God has put all enemies under his feet. As the last enemy, death is to be destroyed.” Thus the minister of God plans to use this text in teaching others the divine purposes.—1 Cor. 15:25, 26.
Then there is the reading aid of asking questions, such as, ‘Why is this so?’ and, ‘Why did this happen?’ Such questions stir up thinking. Thus one may be reading Matthew 4:1, 2: “Then Jesus was led by the spirit up into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. After he had fasted forty days and forty nights, then he felt hungry.” One might ask himself, “Why were forty days and forty nights necessary?” One might reason that Jesus used that time well, by meditating on God’s Word. But still why that length of time? As you reflect on the matter, by association your mind may think on other similar periods, how both Moses and Elijah experienced them. (Ex. 24:18; 34:28; Deut. 9:25; 1 Ki. 19:8) Further thinking brings to mind the transfiguration scene, wherein Jesus was transfigured with Moses and Elijah, and such thinking has given you insight into the matter: That Jesus went into the wilderness for that specific length of time to conform to these types and that the transfiguration scene required this conformity. So by asking questions to yourself and then reflecting on the matter, your understanding may be greatly enhanced.
PROPHETIC IMPORT AND BACKGROUND INFORMATION
As you read, then, be on the lookout for prophetic fulfillment, both in a minor and major way. If you are reading Luke, chapter nine, about the transfiguration of Jesus, you may ask, being alert to prophetic import, “What does this mean?” If, after thinking about the matter, you do not arrive at a satisfactory answer, then do some research. Go to a Scripture index in one of the Watch Tower publications. Look under Luke 9:29, 30 (or the corresponding verses in Matthew and Mark) or in a subject index under the word “transfiguration.” By doing this you will be referred to publications that show the transfiguration scene represented Jesus’ presence in Kingdom power and that he would do a work like that of both Moses and Elijah. You will also learn that the transfiguration was to Peter the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that some of his disciples would not taste death until they had first seen the Son of man in his kingly power.
Sometimes as you read you will find it desirable to dig out background material to enhance your understanding. Suppose you are reading the book of Esther and you notice that much of the action takes place at “Shushan the castle,” or “the city of Shushan.” (Esther 1:2; 3:15) You wonder, Where is this city? What was it like? Going to a Bible dictionary, you find that Shushan was really the Persian royal treasure city of Susa and that it was the royal winter residence. In one dictionary the reader will see a picture of an air view of the ruins of Susa, and you will see it was located on the Karkheh River, and that it is located in what is today southwest Iran. The name “Shushan” now means much more to you as you read this account in which the word so frequently occurs.
REMEMBERING WHAT YOU READ
Certain chapters in the Bible especially lend themselves to visualization, a great aid in remembering. For most of us words are the means by which we do most of our thinking, but these words are not so easy to recall to mind as are pictures. This may be why some persons say they can remember a person’s face but not the name. A large number of words that describe a situation may often be translated into pictures. In other words, imagine the scene that the words describe.
Suppose you are reading the twenty-first chapter of John, about the disciples fishing, how Jesus appears to them, how they haul up a netful of 153 big fish, how Peter plunges into the water and swims toward Jesus, how they breakfast on the shore of the lake and how Jesus instructs Peter as to the vital matter of teaching others. Well, then, imagine in your mind the scene: The disciples in a boat on the lake, having no success fishing. Picture Jesus telling them to put their net down on the other side; visualize the huge net full of fish, the big splash as Peter dives into the water and swims vigorously to meet Jesus, the charcoal fire and the eating of bread and fish. As Jesus instructs Peter to “feed my little sheep,” the reader may wish to visualize a group of little sheep and Jesus pointing to them. Having these pictures in mind, you will remember much about this chapter of John.
Another aid that works much like visualization is the condensing of large amounts of material into short notes, each of which brings to mind many related facts. It is surprising how much information can be remembered by making this brief outline. Let us take the twenty-first chapter of John as an example of reducing a chapter to a brief summary outline.
Jesus’ appearance beside the sea of Tiberias
A. The miraculous haul of fish
B. Peter to feed sheep
C. John to remain until Jesus’ coming
For complete mastery of material in a chapter there is need to sum up that chapter in your mind before you go on to another chapter. Making a brief outline is one way of summarizing the chapter. Look carefully at your notes. Put them away and try to remember how the words looked. Then see whether they remind you of many important facts related to them.
So there is much that can be done to make your reading of the Bible productive. Read to understand. Get the over-all view. When advisable dig out background material to enhance appreciation. Consider prophetic import. Isolate principles that are a guide to your daily living and scriptures that will aid you in your ministry. Ask questions as you read, and let association help you answer them. If you do not understand some material do not pass it over as if it were unimportant. God has not recorded material in the Bible that is dispensable. What is provided is for our instruction to guide us in making decisions and living according to the divine will. Do not show disrespect for God by passing over material you do not understand. Do research, going to an index in one of the Watch Tower publications. Take time to read the Bible with understanding.