The Study of Scripture
The Benefits of Meditation (1842)
While I was staying at Nailsworth, it pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, irrespective of human instrumentality as far as I know, the benefit of which I have not lost—though now, while preparing the eighth edition for the press, more than forty years have since passed away. The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord, but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit.
Before this time my practice had been at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer after having dressed in the morning. Now I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditate on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord. I began, therefore, to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God, searching, as it were, into every verse to get blessing out of it—not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word, not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this: that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, thanksgiving, intercession, or supplication; so that though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer. When thus I have been for a while making confession, intercession, or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead to it; but still continually keeping before me that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart. Thus also the Lord is pleased to communicate unto me that which, very soon after, I have found to become food for other believers, though it was not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word that I gave myself to meditation, but for the profit of my own inner man.
The difference then between my former practice and my present one is this: Formerly, when I rose I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events, I almost invariably began with prayer, except when I felt my soul to be more than usually barren, in which case I read the Word of God for food, or for refreshment, or for a revival and renewal of my inner man, before I gave myself to prayer. But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour on my knees, before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul, etc.; and often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then began really to pray. I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being flourished by the truth, being brought into experimental fellowship with God, I speak to my Father, and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it!) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word.
It often now astonishes me that I did not sooner see this. In no book did I ever read about it. No public ministry ever brought the matter before me. No private intercourse18 with a brother stirred me up to this matter. And yet now, since God has taught me this point, it is as plain to me as anything, that the first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is to obtain food for his inner man. As the outward man is not fit for work for any length of time except we take food, and as this is one of the first things we do in the morning, so it should be with the inner man. We should take food for that, as everyone must allow. Now what is the food for the inner man?—not prayer but the Word of God; and here again not the simple reading of the Word of God so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.
When we pray we speak to God. Now prayer, in order to be continued for any length of time in any other than a formal manner, requires, generally speaking, a measure of strength or godly desire. And the season, therefore, when this exercise of the soul can be most effectually performed, is after the inner man has been nourished by meditation on the Word of God, where we find our Father speaking to us, to encourage us, comfort us, instruct us, humble us, reprove us. We may therefore profitably meditate with God’s blessing, though we are ever so weak spiritually; nay, the weaker we are, the more we need meditation for the strengthening of our inner man. There is thus far less to be feared from wandering of mind, than if we give ourselves to prayer without having had previously time for meditation.
I dwell so particularly on this point because of the immense spiritual profit and refreshment I am conscious of having derived from it myself, and I affectionately and solemnly beseech all my fellow believers to ponder this matter. By the blessing of God I ascribe to this mode the help and strength that I have had from God to pass in peace through deeper trials in various ways than I had ever had before; and after having now above forty years tried this way, I can most fully, in the fear of God, commend it. How different when the soul is refreshed and made happy early in the morning, from what it is when, without spiritual preparation, the service, the trials, and the temptations of the day come upon one!
Preparation for Preaching (1830)
That which I now considered the best mode of preparation for the public ministry of the Word, from deep conviction and from the experience of God’s blessing upon it, is as follows: I ask the Lord that He would graciously be pleased to teach me on what subject I shall speak, or what portion of His Word I shall expound. Sometimes it happens that a subject, or a passage, has been in my mind; in that case I ask Him whether I should speak on it. If after prayer I feel persuaded that I should, I fix upon it, yet so that I would desire to leave myself open to the Lord to change it if He please. Frequently however, it occurs that I have no text or subject in my mind before I give myself to prayer. In this case, I wait some time for an answer, trying to listen to the voice of the Spirit19 to direct me. If then a passage or subject is brought to my mind, I again ask Him, and that sometimes repeatedly, whether it be His will I should speak on it. Frequently it happens that I not only have no text or subject, but also do not obtain one after once or twice or more times praying about it. What I do is to go on with my regular reading of the Scriptures, praying whilst I read, for a text. I have even had to go to the place of meeting without a text, and obtained it perhaps only a few minutes before I was going to speak; but I have never lacked the Lord’s assistance at the time of preaching, provided I had earnestly sought it in private.
Now when the text has been obtained, whether it be one or two or more verses, or a whole chapter, I ask the Lord that He would graciously be pleased to teach me by His Holy Spirit whilst meditating over it. Within the last sixty-three years I have found it the most profitable plan to meditate with my pen in my hand, writing down the outlines, as the Word is opened to me. This I do for the sake of clearness, as being a help to see how far I understand the passage. I very seldom use any other help, besides the little I understand of the original of the Scriptures and some good translations in other languages. My chief help is prayer. I have never in my life begun to study one single part of divine truth without gaining some light about it, when I have been able really to give myself to prayer and meditation over it. This I most firmly believe: that no one ought to expect to see much good resulting from his labors if he is not much given to prayer and meditation.
That which I have found most beneficial in the public ministry of the Word is expounding the Scriptures. This may be done in a twofold way, either by entering minutely into the bearing of every point occurring in the portion, or by giving the general outlines and thus leading the hearers to see the meaning and connection of the whole. The benefits which I have seen resulting from expounding are these:
1. The hearers are thus, with God’s blessing, led to the Scriptures. This induces them to bring their Bibles, and I have observed that those who at first did not bring them, have afterwards been induced to do so; so that in a short time few were in the habit of coming without them. This is no small matter, for everything which in our day will lead believers to value the Scriptures is of importance.
2. The expounding of the Scriptures is in general more beneficial to the hearers than if on a single verse, or half a verse, or two or three words of a verse, some remarks are made, so that the portion of Scripture is scarcely anything but a motto for the subject.
3. The expounding of the Scriptures leaves to the hearers a connecting link, so that the reading over again the portion of the Word that has been expounded brings to their remembrance what has been said—and thus, with God’s blessing, leaves a more lasting impression on their minds. Expounding the Word of God brings little honor to the preacher from the unenlightened or careless hearer, but it tends much to the benefit of the hearers in general.
Simplicity of expression, whilst the truth is set forth, is of the utmost importance. It should be the aim of the teacher so to speak that children, servants, and people who cannot read may be able to understand him, so far as the natural mind can comprehend the things of God. It should also be considered, that if the preacher strive to speak according to the rules of this world, he may please many, particularly those who have a literary taste but in the same proportion he is less likely to become an instrument in the hands of God for the conversion of sinners or for the building up of the saints. For neither eloquence nor depth of thought makes the truly great preacher, but such a life of prayer, meditation, and spirituality as may render him “a vessel…meet for the master’s use” (2Ti 2:21) and fit to be employed both in the conversion of sinners and in the edification of the saints.