“Help me understand the meaning of your precepts so that I can meditate on your wonders.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Granting you’re doing at least a little bit of this right now, but when was the last time you made a good faith effort to engage with the Scriptures? Notice, I didn’t say, “read your Bible.” We usually think in terms of the latter, but the first is more helpful. Either way, if you’re like most people who give the notion of following Jesus some part of the time of day, it’s probably something you’ve tried at least once or twice. And if you’re like most people who fit into that category, you probably got started pretty well, but then gradually fell off the wagon. The odds are better than average that the reason you eventually quit is that you ran into something you didn’t understand. Engaging with the Scriptures can be tough. What the writer of Psalm 119 – which is entirely dedicated to extolling the virtues and worth of God’s word – offers us here is a strategy for staying engaged even when it’s hard. Let’s talk about it.
Have you ever tried to pick up a book written in another language and read it? How far did you get? Probably not very far. Why? Because you didn’t speak or read that particular language. There were words on the page that you could see. If the language shared a common alphabet with your native tongue, you could probably at least pronounce many of the words. But their meaning was largely foreign to you. They were little more than visual noise that, as far as you were concerned, accomplished nothing of their intended purpose. In order to successfully read anything, you have to understand what it is you’re reading. Absent some sort of external source of coercion (like a class assignment), you’re not going to engage long with anything you don’t understand.
Well, when it comes to the Scriptures, there’s a lot to not understand. For starters, whatever Bible you happen to open is overwhelmingly likely to be a translation of the original language which means at least something of the original meaning is going to be lost before you even get started in reading. Yes, translation teams work really hard to preserve as much of the original meaning as possible, but things get lost in translation. There’s really no way around that. Then, there’s the fact that the very latest-written parts of the Bible were composed a little over 1900 years ago. That’s a long time. The oldest parts were written closer to 3500 years ago which were themselves based on stories that had been told for a thousand years before that. That’s a really long time. The world has changed a bit since then. Ideas that people generally understood then in a certain way we either understand entirely differently or not at all. Things they thought were normal seem completely foreign to us. Things that were important to them are irrelevant to us. Things they assumed about how the world worked we know to be objectively false. How do you read something like that and make any positive sense out of it?
Let me add one more element to the challenge here. When you pick up a Bible with the intent of reading it, there’s a good chance you are thinking about it in terms of being a book. That’s only natural. After all, it’s bound like any other book. There’s a front cover and a back cover. There are chapter divisions within it. It only makes sense that you would pick it up, start reading from the front, read to the back, and then you’re done. The trouble is that just about everything you normally think about when you think about a book doesn’t apply to reading the Bible. The Bible is not a “book” the way everything else on your bookshelf is (and I don’t just mean that in terms of its being “the word of God” and not a regular book). You almost certainly should not try to read it cover to cover. And there are so many different types of literature contained within its pages that if you don’t know what exactly you’re reading before you get started, there’s almost no chance in the world you are going to be able to make heads or tails of it.
What all of this means is that if you try to sit down and just read your Bible the way you’ve probably been taught or at least led to believe is what you should do as a follower of Jesus, you’re engaging in an effort that is very likely doomed to failure. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be boring. You’re not going to understand it. And you’ll quit. That big Bible your grandma bought you when you were twelve or that your church gave you when you got baptized is going to become a showpiece that makes guests think you’re really spiritual, but which a bit closer of an inspection of the thickness of the layer of dust on it reveals that it’s probably not doing you much good other than keeping your coffee table from floating up off the ground should gravity suddenly quit working.
And yet, engaging with the Scriptures is perhaps the single most important thing you need to be doing if growing in a relationship with Jesus is something that even falls on your long-range radar of things worth doing with your life. So…what do you do to fix this? You start by accepting that this really is something worth your doing. Then, you begin the process of figuring out exactly what the Bible is.
For starters, it’s not a book. It’s a collection of 66 ancient documents written by 40 different authors over a span of about 1500 years in three different ancient languages whose composition process was nonetheless shepherded at every point by the Holy Spirit such that it tells one continuous story from start to finish whose goal is to introduce you to the God of the universe, the person of His Son, and to convince you to make Him the Lord of your life in order that you will spend eternity in His glorious kingdom rather than separated from Him in a place of darkness and death.
It has two basic parts to it which are traditionally called the Old Testament and the New Testament. The former tells the story of the creation of the world and God’s work to create a cultural and worldview context in which His eventual coming to earth in the person of Jesus is able to make sense and be received by the wider world. He does this through the descendants of a man named Abraham who are eventually called the people of Israel, after his grandson’s nickname. Theirs is a story of incredible patience on God’s part and unbelievable folly and faithlessness on Israel’s part. Throughout their journey, God consistently honors the promises He makes to Abraham in spite of Israel’s pristinely undeserving nature. It all culminates in a long season of silence on God’s part before He breaks it wide open with the announcement of His forthcoming entrance into the world in the person of Jesus who will be born as a baby and live a fully human life.
The thing that most defines the Old Testament, or the Old Covenant, is a covenant of law God made with the people which simultaneously revealed to them the way they could stay right with Him, and the depth of their inability to do such a thing on their own. This old covenant was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus who went on to establish a new covenant rooted in better, stronger promises. God had begun foreshadowing this new covenant many, many years before it was made, but no one ever really understood what any of those promises meant until after Jesus came and established it by dying on a cross and raising to new life on the third day.
Given all of this combined with the overall goal of the Bible, if you’re coming to it fresh, you need to start reading in the New Testament. Take time to engage with what you see there. Don’t just read it. Consume it. Reflect on it. Read it slowly and carefully. Read it in community. Study it. Study it together. Ask questions about it. Get answers to your questions about it. Make sure you understand what it says to the fullest extent you can manage using all the resources at your disposal (which are manifold). Then, go back and begin to engage with the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament; through the lens of Jesus. That way you will be able to begin to see the ways it was always intended to point people forward to Him anyway. It will give you the ability to not have your faith completely undone by some of the harder episodes it presents before you have the chance to discover where that faith should really be in the first place.
In all of these efforts, though, you need to do what the Psalmist does here. The Scriptures are God’s word. Like I said before, He superintended their composition over the centuries to make sure the message being conveyed was the message He wanted conveyed. Everything in them is there because He wanted it to be there. As the apostle Paul would later put it, every word of it is all God-breathed. The writer of Hebrews described it as living and active. He was talking about what we call the Old Testament (although his words apply to the New Testament just as well) even though he also referred to the old covenant as obsolete. This means that even though we are not beholden to anything in the Old Testament (in Christ, our only command is to love one another the way He loved us), it is nonetheless still profitable for our reading; it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, as Paul put it. Mostly though, and again, it is His word. Don’t engage with it without inviting Him to be a part of the process. Make the Psalmist’s prayer here your prayer. “Help me understand the meaning of your precepts [that is, the Scriptures] so that I can meditate on your wonders.”
God wants us to engage with His word because it gives Him access to our souls. That’s His real goal. He wants to use it to draw us to Himself. When we run into tough stuff, let’s ask Him about it. He may not reveal the answer to us immediately, but as we seek Him, He will gradually reveal more and more of Himself to us as we continue to engage. The more and better we understand Him, the more and better the Scriptures are accomplishing their intended goal.
My challenge to you this morning, then, is to not read your Bible. Instead, I challenge you to engage with the Scriptures. More than that, engage with the God who inspired them. Your efforts in that direction will never be wasted.