By J.W. McGarvey
The study of the Scriptures by topics is the third method which I have named. While prosecuting the methods already mentioned, a general knowledge of leading topics will have been obtained; but the preacher should never be satisfied with a general knowledge of any topic treated in the Bible. Detached pieces of information are never satisfying, and they are very likely to prove misleading. Complete, systematic and exact information is what our calling demands, and this we must as soon as possible acquire.
I know of no method by which such a knowledge of topics can be acquired less laborious than the following: First, by means of your recollection from former readings, and by use of your Concordance, gather up all the passages which treat of the subject in hand, or which throw any light upon it. Second, classify these passages according to the different branches of the subject with which they are connected. The branches of the subject are often known in a general way before the investigation begins. They have come into notice by inquiries of your own mind, or they have been made familiar by religious controversy. When the divisions thus suggested are but a part, the passages themselves will suggest the remainder, so that there will seldom appear any difficulty in completely classifying the collected passages and obtaining exhaustive subdivisions of the topic. The next step is to arrange the thoughts and facts under each branch of the subject in some natural order of sequence, and thus obtain a systematic view of it as it stands in the Scriptures. Finally, the parts must be studied with reference to one another and the whole; and the whole must be studied with reference to all its parts. When this is done you are prepared, and not till then, to write or speak on the subject or any of its parts with the assurance of one who understands fully what he proposes to say.
This is a laborious process. It is one which only the few have the industry to pursue; but the few who do pursue it are the masters in Israel, they are the teachers of teachers; while those who lack this industry must remain contented with very imperfect knowledge, and must obtain their knowledge in the main at second-hand. I suppose myself to be addressing men who wish to rank with the former of these two classes. It may be well to add, however, that a young preacher, in the beginning of his ministry must necessarily discuss some subject before he can have had time and opportunity for this exhaustive study; but all such should remember that this necessity is one of the disabilities of inexperience which must be put away as soon as possible.
In the last place, I am to speak of studying the Scriptures devotionally. The preacher who has not a devotional spirit, lacks the chief elements of power with the people both in the pulpit and out of it. He is utterly incapable of cultivating a devotional spirit in his hearers; and without this the entire service of 1he church becomes an empty form. No man who is to lead the people in the way of life can afford to neglect this element of the Christian character, this source of religious enjoyment, this element of pulpit power. Apart from frequent prayer and much meditation, there is no way to cultivate this spirit except by the thoughtful reading of those portions of Scripture which are especially designed to awaken devotional sentiments. The preacher, therefore, should study these portions a great deal. They should be in his hand every day.
When we speak of devotional parts of the Scriptures, the mind turns at once to the book of Psalms; for in it are collected the richest poetic effusions of pious hearts throughout the period of Jewish inspiration, from Moses to the poets of Babylonian captivity. But only a certain portion of these is well adapted to the cultivation of devotion. Some of them are descriptive, some didactic, and a few are vindictive, giving utterance to that sentiment of the Mosaic law which allowed the demand of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. By frequent reading of all the Psalms, the preacher will make himself acquainted with those which contain pure devotional feeling according to the Christian standard, and these should be his sources of inspiration.
But besides the Psalms, there are many passages in Job, in Ecclesiastes, in Proverbs, in the prophets, and even in the historical books of the Old Testament, the study of which lifts up the soul to the loftiest sentiments, while in the New Testament, which contains not a single book of poetry, there are passages in the Gospel, in Acts, in the Epistles, and in the Apocalypse, fully equal to the most sublime poetry for filling the soul with every holy emotion. The preacher, while studying the Scriptures historically, by books and by topics, will have found all these passages. He should mark them as he discovers them, and should subsequently revert to them, for devotional reading until both their contents and their places in the book became familiar to him.
In order to the best effort upon our hearts, our devotional study should not consist in a mere dreamy reading of the parts referred to; for in this way the impression made is likely to be shallow and transitory. We should study these passages exegetically, searching into the significance of every figure employed, and trying to paint before imagination’s eye every image projected by the writer. If we read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” we do not feel full force of the metaphor until we learn all about the work of a Palestine shepherd, as it is alluded to throughout this Psalm, and as it is literally described by Jesus in the tenth chapter of John. So of all the metaphors, tropes and historical allusions throughout the poetry of the Bible.
But the best effects of devotional study will still lie beyond our reach, if we do not commit many of these inspiring passages to memory, so that we can meditate upon them in the night watches, call them up amid our labors and our journeyings, and make them subjects of conversation when the Bible is not at hand. It is in this way that the word of God is to dwell in us richly in all wisdom. If you will inquire you will find it almost universally true of men and women eminent for piety, that their memories were vast storehouses for the most precious portions of God’s Holy Book.
As a kind of concluding note I must append to this part of my lecture the remark, that in all of our study of the Scriptures we must constantly consult the original if we can, and that we must by all means use the best version. The Canterbury revision of the New Testament should now totally supplant the King James version, not only because it is a great improvement as a version, but because it is the only representative in English of the corrected Greek text. A man is not safe in venturing upon the exegesis of a single passage by the aid of the old version until he shall have compared it carefully with the new; and rather than be continually making these comparisons, it is better to at once adopt the new into exclusive use.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 5, pp. 135-136
March 1, 1984