If you have a good Bible reading and study plan that works well, that’s great. But what if you don’t? What if others don’t get on with your approach? Well, for you, or for someone else, this video might be helpful. It shares a reading and study approach that I believe has a lot to commend it.
There is flexibility – you choose what time to give to it.
There is motivation – you choose where to put your energy.
There is potential – I’ve not found a plan that seems more likely to build solid Bible-shaped believers.
One of the challenges of Bible reading is maintaining momentum. There are a number of momentum killers, like long lists of names and unpronounceable places. What should we do?
One way to evaluate your Bible times is by checking in on what is happening in your mind and heart the rest of the time. What does it mean to meditate on God’s Word day and night? Check out this video for more:
The question that I hear more than any other is this, “what should I do when I don’t feel like reading my Bible?” It is an important question. We all need a decent answer that can help us when we inevitably get those days. Here is a video that may be helpful.
Please click here to subscribe to the YouTube channel – thanks!
CH Spurgeon’s conversion is one of the great conversion stories in church history. Feeling under heavy conviction and longing to find out how to be saved, he set off for church one January Sunday morning (172 years ago tomorrow, in fact). The weather was atrocious and he couldn’t make it to his intended destination, and instead slipped into a small chapel where about a dozen people were attending. Their preacher had also been thwarted by the weather, so eventually, a thin man stood up to preach. Some have said it was the wrong preacher, in the wrong church, in the wrong weather, with the wrong congregation. Whatever, God is still God!
Spurgeon himself said, “Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed, but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say.”
Of course, the story continues. The text was from Isaiah. “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” And the message was on target for young and troubled Spurgeon, “there was a glimpse of hope for me in that text.” So the thin-looking preacher restated the text every way he could manage for about ten minutes, and then told the young guest at the back that he looked miserable and needed to look to Jesus to be saved. And Spurgeon was born again. Spurgeon often told the story and it is well worth reading.
But let’s just ponder that earlier point. “He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say.”
Three points to ponder:
1. Our job as a preacher is to say what the text says.
2. Our education does not give us something better to say than what the text says.
3. God once spoke through a donkey, so humbly say what the text says.
Looking back on that moment, Spurgeon quoted words you may have sung:
E’er since by faith I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply, Redeeming love has been my theme, And shall be till I die.
Some Christians seem excited about Bible study, while others seem scared of the concept. Why should we invest time in studying the Bible? Here are five good reasons!
1. For spiritual life. Some years ago, I was pointed to a fascinating book about conversions in the Muslim world. I am sure you have heard of how God is using dreams and visions to bring Muslims to Jesus. The book’s author pointed out that when these testimonies are investigated, the dreams are a key link in a chain, but they are not the whole chain. In each case, the person had to encounter God’s written word before coming to faith in Christ.
When Jesus spoke to the religious leaders in John 5, he shocked them by saying they did not know God or have his word in them. These were men who spent hours in their scrolls every day. Jesus pointed out that they thought they could find life in the scriptures themselves, but actually, those scriptures were pointing to a person – him! (John 5:39) As we study the Bible, it points us to Jesus. As we meet Jesus, we find spiritual life itself. Knowing God the Father, through Jesus the Son, is the very essence of eternal life. (John 17:3)
2. For spiritual growth. Six times we have had the joy and privilege of bringing a newborn into our family. Life is relatively simple for the baby. Eat and sleep. And those regular meals with Mum result in the biggest growth spurt of their lives (even more than a teenage boy!) So Peter positively uses the analogy of milk to describe how the Bible will nourish us and grow us as believers. We should long for that sustenance so we can grow spiritually. (1Peter 2:2)
3. For spiritual maturity. That same analogy is also used in Hebrews but in a negative sense. The preacher to the Hebrews is concerned because these believers have not matured as they should. Instead of solid food, they are still on a liquid diet. Mature believers can discern between good and evil because they have been trained for the challenges of spiritual adulthood. Where should we look for solid food if the Bible provides spiritual milk? Still, the Bible – that part of the analogy remains consistent! (Hebrews 5:11-14) Have you ever met a genuinely mature believer who had arrived at that stage without a steady diet of the Bible shaping their life and character? No, nor me.
4. For spiritual effectiveness. We live in an era of unlimited opportunities. Where do you go if you want thorough equipping for ministry in the church, home, and workplace? There are so many seminars, workshops, books, courses and institutions inviting us to come along and learn. Paul wrote to Timothy and described the God-breathed usefulness of Scripture. It teaches, reproves, corrects and trains us. What is the result of that biblical influence in our lives? It is that we may be complete, equipped for every good work. That is quite the promise! (2Tim.3:16-17)
The Bible offers us salvation, spiritual growth, maturity and equipping for all aspects of life and ministry. Some might stop there, but there is another reason to study the Bible:
5. For spiritual delight. Psalm 1 introduces us to the righteous man who doesn’t allow the world’s message to shape his life. Instead, his delight is in the revelation of the Lord; on that word, he meditates day and night. Have you ever paused to ponder the word “delight” in Psalm 1:2? He does not merely concern himself with the message or even simply find his life instructions there. He delights in it. There is something about God’s very character, and therefore his inspired Word, that means we can read and study it for sheer delight. The ultimate reason to spend time in God’s Word is not that we have to, but because we get to! The heart of eternal joy and never-fading delight is opened toward us in the revelation of Scripture!
There are more reasons to read and study the Bible, but that’s a good starting point.
Solomon wrote thousands of proverbs. So when he writes, “Above all else…” – that should get our attention. What is “above all else” from Solomon’s perspective? In Proverbs 4:23, he tells us: “guard your heart.” That is huge. He recognized that the heart is the governor of all our activity, but strangely he did not simply say, “control your heart.” If we could just control our innermost desires, then we would have no problem living holy lives (or even being successful in any other pursuit of our choosing). Perhaps at the core of our being, we are responsive to external stimuli and not simply responsible free agents who can consistently choose whatever is best. The wise advice in this section of Proverbs is profoundly important for us as we head into another year.
In Proverbs 4:20-27, Solomon urges the reader to pay attention to his wise words – looking at them and keeping them in our hearts (v. 20-21). He underlines the critical role of the heart and the need to guard it (v. 23). He urges the reader to protect themselves from careless speech or from letting their eyes get drawn aside so that they should step away from their path (v. 24-27). Above all else, in 2023, we need to guard our hearts. I believe a great place to begin is with a prayerful eye evaluation.
I have been pondering a scale to help me take stock of what is getting through my eyes and influencing my heart. It is a scale that runs from -2 to +3.
Distractedly Entertained – Level 0? Long ago, this might have involved some children playing a game in the town square or an animal behaving amusingly. It was a break from the norm. Nowadays, we have entire industries actively targeting you with entertaining distractions. Scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, watching random YouTube videos about cats, men throwing CDs into a CD player, the most bizarre incidents in professional sports, and this list is designed never to end. Then there are video games, an endless Twitter stream, etc. Distracted entertainment has become a staple part of our cultural diet in recent years.
I think we can make a case for calling it Eye Level 0 entertainment because there is implicit moral neutrality to some of what distracts us. But once we consider all factors, is there really moral neutrality? Could we be hurting ourselves by believing that we can stand still in a world that is relentlessly moving away from God? Perhaps we would do well to call this entertainment Eye Level -1. The Bible does warn us about time-wasting, which can involve things that are not wrong in themselves. The average weekly consumption of distracted entertainment in our culture is stunning. Perhaps we have become more entangled than we realize. Let’s confess that entanglement and prayerfully take steps away from Eye Level -1 and the regret of lost time as we head into this new year.
So we have Distractedly Entertained – Eye Level -1.
Sinfully Entertained – Eye Level -2. Any of the above activities can easily slide into sinful entertainment – where we seek satisfaction for sinful desires through what we watch. The classic example is pornography, an industry that has made its content far easier to access than ever before. But even without the things that a good filter will stop on your device, we can also fall into “pornographying” non-pornographic content. Perhaps we think of it as a more sanctified type of lust that does not rely on overtly provocative material – on social media, TV shows, movies, etc. And then there is envious window shopping or jealously obsessing over what the rich and famous wear and drive. There are so many contemporary forms of idolatry. “Search me and try me, O Lord…” – prayerfully ask God to show you where your distracted entertainment has morphed into something even more harmful than time-wasting.
Let’s get back to the positive end of the scale:
Intentionally Entertained – Eye Level +1. There are legitimate uses of entertainment media. We need to evaluate prayerfully so that we don’t get sucked in by what our world is pushing us to think. However, there is a place for finding a TV show refreshing, a favourite movie can be restful, a shared football game can be social, a good book can be helpfully engrossing, etc. Where Eye Levels -2 and -1 leave us guilty, ashamed, worn down, frustrated, and empty, Eye Level +1 entertainment can be good for us.
Informed – Eye Level +2. In the old days, this might be found by listening to a report from a friend who has been travelling, reading the newspaper over breakfast, or watching a helpful documentary on the television. The rarity of access to information placed a premium on this commodity, but today, the situation has changed. We are bombarded with information. A well-chosen news subscription, a select list of Twitter accounts to follow, some helpful YouTube subscriptions, or a select set of blogs, etc., can be beneficial. The key seems to be planning rather than scrolling, or else we end up back in Eye Level +1 intentional entertainment, or even more likely, in Eye Level -1 distracted entertainment, or worse.
We are bombarded with the enticement to fritter away hours in Eye Levels -2, -1, +1 and +2. As we get used to and dependent on technology and social media, we may even start to think that our mental health, knowledge and spirituality are to be found somewhere in Eye Levels -1, +1 and +2. Perhaps we even think that our ministry is helped and built up in Eye Levels +1 and, especially, +2. But let’s remember that there is another level.
Enriched – Eye Level +3. There is something different about Eye Level +3. In the old days, time spent in the Book or good books was an obvious option in a world with a relatively limited range of alternatives. The significance of good reading was especially true for a serious-minded Christian, and even more so for a minister of the Word. Nowadays, this can be so easily lost. We live in a tidal wave of evil, distractions, entertainment, and information. But even if we avoid the worst of that flood, there is still a qualitative difference between being informed by a screen and being enriched by the page. Personally, I find that even reading the same author on a blog does less for my soul than spending time reading their book – is that just me?
We live in an age of hyper-distracted, entertained, and even a few well-informed, but largely unenriched people. It shows in our world today. Are we also living in a time of well-entertained and sometimes well-informed but largely unenriched believers? It shows in our churches and pulpits. So let’s do something radical. Let’s value that which enriches our souls and takes our relationship with God and others to someplace deeper than the norm.
As we head into 2023, let’s take stock of how God would want us to use our eyes this year. After all, they are an essential gateway by which we can guard our hearts.
In 2023 I am planning to release short videos related to Bible study. God has given us a great treasure. How can we read and study it for maximum understanding, enrichment and life impact? Please subscribe to this playlist to see the videos as they are released. Please like, comment, and share any that might be helpful to others. Thank you!
During 2022, I decided to work my way through the Psalms. One video per Psalm. One point relating to interpreting the Psalm, and one point of relevance for today. I completed the playlist this week. I hope this can be useful to you. Please do let others know about this playlist if it might be helpful to them too.
I know some people used these videos as a companion to a personal reading of the Psalms this year, perhaps this can be useful in a similar way next year. Since the playlist is complete, it now allows that to happen at your pace instead of mine!
Travel can be transformational. By travel, I don’t mean layovers in airports en route to somewhere else (I’ve unsuccessfully visited some significant countries this way!) No, I mean genuinely visiting.
Let me share two examples and then make my point for us.
A “Third World Country” – How often have you heard people return from a missions trip and say that the local people taught them so much? It is a consistent message! I remember visiting an East African country and experiencing a completely different life.
There was the food, the wildlife, the weather, and the transport. The cultural differences hindered my teaching, but then again, they also supported it. There was that more remote tribe where the children could pick out their friends in a picture on my camera. And yet they could not recognise themselves because they had never seen a good reflection before. And there was much to learn from the simple lifestyle, not to mention the sacrificial hospitality. It was like stepping into a different world, and I came home changed by my visit.
A “Second World Country” – I visited an Eastern European country some years ago. We walked past the jail where political prisoners, including pastors, used to be held and tortured. Communism never has room for dissenters, free thinkers or any God except the state. Therefore church leaders and Christians are always a threat.
I remember asking a man driving me to a meeting what it was like to live under communism. He spoke of how some things worked, but nobody was free. He gave me two examples. He described living in a world where one in three people worked for the government as an informer. It meant that you would never speak openly about politics or religion. You never knew who would inform and lead to your arrest and the suffering that might also come to your family. And he described how everyone would dutifully buy the newspaper, signalling that they were good citizens. But they would never read it because everyone knew it was all government-controlled lies.
I have thought a lot about that conversation over the years. It was like a haunting warning from another country at another time. I often think about how our culture is moving towards that kind of community spying. We now live around people ready to call out anyone who breaks the brand new moral codes related to gender, sexuality and race. And we have technology constantly monitoring every click of the mouse, message from our keyboard or even word uttered by our mouth. And perhaps most concerning is the number of people who digest the messaging disseminated through our news media but don’t realise how controlled the messaging is. It is not hard to imagine our world morphing into another iteration of communism with millions of people naively celebrating such a sinister transformation of society! After all, it always comes out of a crisis for the good of the people.
The bottom line – Travelling to a different culture and meeting people who’ve lived in other times can hugely impact us. It should have a significant impact on us. Insightful lessons that will enrich our lives. Haunting warnings to protect us. If we have the privilege of travelling and go eager to learn, it will change us.
So, what do we do as Christians when we open our Bibles? What happens when we preach the Bible to others? We get to travel to a different world.
1. A different world geographically & culturally – Good bible study and biblical preaching will take our imaginations to the battlefields of ancient Israel, the throne rooms of ancient kings, the living rooms of ancient peasants, and the discussion forum of ancient philosophers. We will visit the Sinai peninsula’s wilderness, the fishing villages of Galilee, the arid hills around Jerusalem, the stormy Mediterranean sea, and strategic cities around one section of the Roman empire.
2. A different world educationally – Good bible study and biblical preaching will take our hearts right into the crowd hearing Moses preach. Or we might join the crowd hearing an Old Testament prophet proclaim God’s message. We might sit on the grass and hear Jesus teach. Or perhaps overhear the apostles announcing the resurrection. We will spend time being mentored by the experience of a young shepherd fighting for his nation, a want-away prophet running from his calling, or a height-challenged tax collector hiding in a tree. Wonderful enrichment for life and haunting warnings await us if we just travel into the Bible with our hearts open and ready to learn.
3. A different world entirely – Good bible study and biblical preaching take us to faraway lands and insightful mentors and, beyond that, give us a glimpse into another world. The Bible is not an old travelogue. We are earthbound and tend to think very “down here” kinds of thoughts. But heaven has broken into our world, and we can hear from the world of love where God is forever reigning, without caveat or coup. We might pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In the Bible, we get not only those words to pray but also the life-changing revelation of what that all means.
Every day we have the privilege of travel with all its life enrichment, haunting warnings and unique mentoring opportunities. Open your Bible with an open heart. And every time we share our biblical travels with others in conversation or preaching, we can take them with us. Don’t shortchange yourself or others by simply grabbing for an applicational point or a quick anecdote.
Too many of us visit the world of the Bible like a traveller in transit through an airport. We might pick up a local bar of chocolate in a kiosk, but we haven’t truly been to the country, and our lives show no evidence of impact. What would it look like to really go? To meaningfully visit? To spend time with the people, to see the sights, to be lastingly changed?
By the way, after going through the Psalms in 2022 on YouTube, I am planning to spend the next months offering short videos related to the subject of studying and enjoying our Bibles. Please let me know, at any time, if you have an idea that would help that playlist become more useful to you or your church!
The book of Psalms tends to become a favourite for people who have faced some challenges in life. Perhaps you have experienced grief over the loss of a loved one, discouragement during a dark season of life, or any other challenges that set the Psalms into vivid colour in our hearts. Once we know of the soul food kept in that storehouse, we tend to find ourselves returning again and again.
Sometimes the Psalm writer has found words for the ache in my heart. Other times the psalmist points my heart to where it needs to be looking. The book of Psalms is a real treasure – a refreshing spring for the weary times we all have to endure.
The book of Psalms sits at the centre of our Bibles for the times we are just reading through. Maybe there is no experienced crisis that leads us to this vast collection of Hebrew poetry. Sometimes, we will find ourselves reading it simply because it comes next in our Bible reading. It can be a great experience to read it through with fresh eyes and notice the uniqueness of each Psalm and the recurring themes.
Let’s look at the first Psalm of book five – Psalm 107. This Psalm sets the tone for the section that will follow. It begins as you might expect, with a call to thank our good God for his enduring, steadfast love. This call goes out to all who have been redeemed and rescued by God (v1-3).
Then we find ourselves walking through four examples of challenging circumstances from which God rescues his people:
First, we read of the weary wilderness wanderers failing to find a place of sanctuary (v4-9). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. (Those words will come up again.) So, with stomachs full and souls satisfied, the psalmist encourages them to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.
Second, we read of the helpless prisoners, tired and broken by hard labour (v10-16). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With their bonds broken and bodies set free, they are called to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.
Third, we read of the afflicted starving to death, suffering for their sin and facing their demise (v17-22). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With healed bodies and joyful hearts, they are invited to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.
Fourth, we read of the fear-filled seafarers, tossed to and fro by the raging seas, despairing and at their wit’s end (v23-32). This example gives more vivid detail, but again, they cried to the LORD, and he delivered them (see v 6, 13, 19 and 28). With the storm stilled and safely brought back to the fellowship of humans on shore, they are encouraged to thank the LORD for his steadfast love (see v8, 15, 21, 31)
The final section of the Psalm underlines some of the points made throughout. God is in charge. Just as he can bring about change in nature (v33-38), he can reverse his people’s fortunes (v39-42). And so, the final verse ensures we have not missed the point. If we are wise, we will ponder what this Psalm says. Indeed, if we are wise, we will ponder, contemplate, consider and meditate on the steadfast love of the LORD (v43).
The Psalm begins and ends with the spotlight on the steadfast love of God. The Psalm invites us to consider four examples of people in dire straits who called out to God and discovered why they should thank God for that steadfast love.
Perhaps Psalm 107 is the food for thought that we need. It could be that we feel like we are close to death or tossed in every direction and despairing of life itself. Or it could be that we are calmly moving through the second half of 2022, thankful for God’s blessing and a season of tranquillity and peace. Whatever may be going on around us, Psalm 107 suggests what should be happening inside us. We should be considering the steadfast love of God. Honestly, it is hard to think of a wiser thing to do.
Genesis is the book of foundations. It lays down so many foundational truths on which the rest of the Bible can helpfully build. For example, consider the life of Abraham. His is the first extended biographical narrative in the Bible. His story is about as far removed from our world as can be – geographically, culturally, religiously, technologically – and yet, it all feels so strangely relevant. This is not surprising; God is a great communicator and knows exactly how to introduce us to the concept of living a life of faith in a God and his good-promise plan.
I recently revisited the most famous story in the epic biography of Abraham – Genesis 22. So much had already happened in the preceding chapters. God had called Abram to give up everything and go to an as-yet-unspecified location. And then the rollercoaster of Abram’s growing faith takes us through some real highs and surprising lows. There is the daring battle and rescue of Lot, his nephew, later followed by intercession as Lot’s town faced imminent judgment. There is the powerful covenant scene in the darkness after the declaration of Abram’s belief in God’s promise. But there is also the repeated risking of Sarah’s life with foreign kings, not to forget the turmoil created by having a child with Sarah’s maidservant. Finally, after many years, the child of promise arrives to change the tone of the laughter in the family tent. Abraham’s story is a rollercoaster of growing and struggling faith in a good God – and so is our story.
Coming to Mt Moriah – After all the ups and downs, we arrive at Genesis 22. Back in chapter 12, Abraham had been called to go, to leave everything, and to journey to a yet-unspecified location. Now in chapter 22, he is again called to go to an unknown location and to give up everything. Before, his life included a whole host of people and the perks of life in sophisticated Ur. Now, everything was wrapped up in the breathing body of his long-promised son.
Abraham’s story teaches us that life is not about continual novelty. God repeats and restates his promise, Abraham repeats the same struggles and sins, and God is repeatedly gracious. We see God again calling Abraham to give up everything, just like He had asked at the beginning, and also not just like that – this felt much bigger.
Your life, and mine, is not filled with brand new experiences and lessons. How often do we despair when we slide back into the same old struggles, and yet how often do we get to marvel at God’s patient kindness in lovingly rescuing us and helping us learn the same lessons at deeper levels? When the gospel first stirred our hearts, we were called to leave everything and follow him, so why are we surprised if years later we are again called to give up yet more in order to follow him even more closely? As the years pass, the light of God’s goodness shines deeper into the corners of our lives.
So, the story of Genesis 22 unfolds in a masterpiece of ancient storytelling. The writer underlines the pain of God’s call as he labours over the identification of the sacrifice in verse 2 – “it is your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.” The writer piles verb upon verb in verses 3-4 to give a sense of the progressing action as Abraham obeys God’s call. The writer slows the progression of the narrative as Abraham’s hand is held high over Isaac, bound on the altar in verse 10. It really is brilliant storytelling. Perhaps most telling is what the storyteller omits – specifically, Abraham’s feelings. We read of his unflinching obedience, but our hearts break as we read it. Perhaps the writer did not mention Abraham’s feelings because no words could ever describe them adequately? Perhaps because any empathetic reader would already know better than words could convey?
As we reflect on Genesis 22, here are three thoughts to ponder prayerfully for our journey of faith in God today:
1. Genesis 22 is about worship.
Christianity is a uniquely diverse global worship movement. Across the globe, every week, millions of people gather to sing in worship to God. Since singing is so central to our ongoing experience of faith, it is easy to assume that our worship consists entirely in our shared singing. However, the Bible does not restrict the concept of worship to our shared harmonization of heartfelt truths. The Bible speaks of worship also in terms like Romans 12:1, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . this is your spiritual act of worship.” And so perhaps there is no better passage to get us thinking straight about worship than Genesis 22. Abraham was called not to murder his son, but to make an offering of him to God. Abraham himself spoke of their plan to “go and worship” (v5).
Genesis 22 is about worship. And it makes clear that worship, our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God, involves more than singing. Abraham was called to leave everything and live for God back in chapter 12. But now, years later, he is again called to live for God by giving everything to him. What will it look like for you to worship God today? Perhaps you look back on your conversion and see a greater fervour in your expression of worship. But this story does not urge a return to our first love. It invites us to a more costly, deeply-felt sacrificial offering of our everything to God. Worship means giving God everything.
2. Genesis 22 is about faith.
There is no doubt that this story is the high point of Abraham’s biography as the father of faith. But what is the nature of that faith? Notice that in verse 5 he tells his servants that he and the boy will “go worship and come again to you.” Hebrews 11:17-19 reveals that Abraham had faith that God would raise Isaac from the dead. After all, he had been born out of the death of Sarah’s womb, so why wouldn’t God be able to do it again? Also notice that in verse 8 he tells Isaac that “God will provide.” Abraham could not know exactly what would happen, but he seemed to know exactly who was in charge. After God provided the ram, Abraham speaks again, naming the place “The LORD will provide” (v14).
The only way you and I can really worship God today, if worship means giving everything to God, is if we have faith that God himself will provide. Can I give up this relationship that the Spirit of God is calling me to walk away from? (That is not your marriage, but it could be an unhealthy friendship that threatens your future or present marriage!) God will provide. Can I give up this promotion and the security that may come with it in order to live out my spiritual values, even though I need that greater salary? God will provide. Can I give sacrificially when I don’t even know how expensive everything will become in the next months? God will provide. Worship means giving everything to God, trusting in his giving character.
3. Genesis 22 is about God.
The ultimate worship question is the Mt Moriah question. If worship is about giving our everything to God, and if that requires faith in God’s giving, then let’s ask the Mt Moriah question. Who gave up everything on Mt Moriah? Abraham was willing, but was spared by a God-given sacrifice. Years later, God himself brought his son, his only son, whom he loved, Jesus, to Mt Moriah. God was willing, and did not spare his own son, but made him the God-given sacrifice for us. God really did provide.
And that brings us to the heart of worship. It is our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God. We cannot work it up in ourselves by practice or by determination. It is a response. So, we must look to Mt Moriah. We worship by giving our everything to God, because he first gave his everything for us.
I remember sitting high up in the Royal Albert Hall for a schools concert some years ago. Impressive venue, electric atmosphere, and stunning music. All of the music was very good, but there is something unique about the 1812 Overture once the cannons are fired up in the rafters – it was so fun to watch the children’s faces (they didn’t know it was coming!) I am no classical music fan, but that always feels like a high point in any concert.
The thing is, music can’t all be a thrilling crescendo. And the musical impact is not all achieved by crescendo. There are variations of melodic themes woven together, changes from major to minor key to influence the mood, variations in rhythmic intensity, and so much more. It would not make for great music to simply string together and elongate every possible crescendo (or add cannons to every piece)!
The same principle is true in preaching. There are various ways in which we can start to lean on a powerful crescendo too much, and thereby weaken our preaching. Here are a few examples:
Your Voice – Undoubtedly you can run into a crowded room and get everyone’s attention by screaming. That doesn’t mean you should scream your way through a sermon. Naturally, when we are excited about what we have to say, our voice will tend to climb upwards. It will go up in pitch, up in volume, and up in pace. And the ability to pause meaningfully? That will go up in smoke! As a preacher, you will do well to learn the benefit, and the skill, of going down for emphasis too. You can go down in pitch, down in volume, and down in pace – all for a non-crescendo variation on emphasis. And bring the skill of pause back down to earth too, it really can help!
Your Points – It is so easy to find a formula that works for a point in a message and then find yourself repeating that same formula for each point. Perhaps the flow moves from stating the point to explaining it textually and then applying it with an exhortational forcefulness that works well in point 1. That does not mean that point 2 must also have the same crescendo at the point of application. Be sure to look at how your points serve each other. Sometimes a point works better without forcefulness – let it fulfil its function in the message.
Your Support Material – It is always tempting to think that a certain type of “illustration” will always work well because one particular example did. Maybe your sermon seemed to soar when you recounted the moving story, shared the humourous anecdote, or let rip with the fiery rebuke (you know your tendency in terms of preferred “illustrations!”) Great. Be thankful that it worked. But don’t start to lean on that type of material to the exclusion of others. People grow tired of perfectly placed emotional stories, side-splitting humour, or repeated rebuke. The repetition will not achieve greater impact but will move listeners to start to see your preaching as manipulative, your goal as to entertain, or your pastoral concern as haranguing.
Your Series – Last Sunday I was preaching the passage after God rescued Isaac on Mount Moriah. That had been a crescendo message in an Abraham series stretching back for many weeks. People commented and appreciated and responded to the emotional impact of that sermon. So what to do the week after? It was tempting to try to continue the crescendo. Why not keep up the same emotional pitch for maximum personal impact? Instead, I chose to deliberately preach in a much more relaxed “teaching” style that allowed us to consider the new passage before us. I think it was the right choice. There was still some emotional impact, but it was not through the perpetuation of the crescendo. The message was in a different key, the music made its own impact, and it didn’t try to roll out the cannons again.
Where else can we find ourselves leaning on crescendo to the exclusion of other helpful options?
During 2022 I have been enjoying a slow walk through the book of Psalms. I have been working through the book one Psalm at a time. I have shared the journey via YouTube and sought to convey a detail and a point of application from each Psalm to help others enjoy reading the Psalm. I will attach the playlist below this post.
As we are now at the halfway point in the year, I thought I would pull together some reflections:
Slowing down and pondering a Psalm allows you to appreciate the artistic crafting contained within a Psalm. For instance, if I look at the short five verses of Psalm 70, I notice the key terms repeated in the first and last verses: haste, O God, deliver me; O LORD, help me. Actually, while I knew that Psalms can give a sense of completion by using similar terminology at the beginning and end, I have been surprised by how often that occurs. And the use of inclusio, or “bookends”, is only one of many types of artistry to be found in the Psalms.
Scribbling on the text of a Psalm allows you to notice the flow of thought more easily. Again, sticking with Psalm 70 as a simple example, there are two movements within the body of the Psalm. In verses 2-3, the repetition of “Let them…” shows David’s concern regarding those opposing him. He wants God to deal with them. Then verse 4 has the repetition of “May…”, which points to the positive request and anticipation. David knows that seeking God leads to good for his people. Judgment of them; the blessing for us.
Study intensity does not preclude devotional impact. I remember Gordon Fee writing about the need for exegesis and devotion. He noted that just as a church does not need an exegetically precise pastor who is lacking in devotional warmth as he studies his Bible in sermon preparation, the people in the pew should not be devotionally warm while being exegetically imprecise in their personal Bible times. Sometimes we fall into the trap of separating technical study from devotional reading. But when I scribble on a printout of a Psalm, note the structure, the parallelisms, the imagery, and even when I turn to a technical commentary to probe a specific issue, none of this precludes the devotional impact of the Psalm. The end goal should be that the Psalm speaks to my heart, affects my life, and potentially gets shared as an encouragement to someone else.
Simplicity in Psalm study is sometimes where we find the treasure. Some of us set the bar very high for our Bible engagement. We think we have to plumb the depths and find high-level technical insights in every study. But in Psalm 70, the bottom line is straightforward. David starts the final verse with an extra line before returning to the terms that bring the Psalm full circle as they repeat the opening ideas from verse 1. What is the additional line? “But I am poor and needy.” The enemies of David need to be judged. God’s people have reason to rejoice in God. David is poor and needy. So, hasten, O God, deliver and help me. The bottom line that we can take away? “I need God.” It is not high-level original thought, and I will not get a PhD for noticing it, but it might be just the thought I need as I walk with God today.
Short Psalms do not have to mean brief study. Psalm 70 is just five verses long. It is essentially a repetition of the final verses of Psalm 40. So, with it being brief and recently studied, does that make it a quick cursory study? It does not have to mean that at all! God’s Word can always be a fruitful chew! I understand the benefits of a quick read and simple study – we all need those too. But there is nothing to say that a brief Psalm must not linger longer than a few minutes in our minds and hearts. Meditate on God’s Word, day and night – that even sounds like a healthy Psalms idea!
Some Psalms point overtly to Jesus; every Psalm points to God’s character. Some Psalms clearly point beyond themselves to the coming greater son of David. In other Psalms, the connection to the coming Messiah is less overt. But every Psalm points to God’s character, which is an excellent focus for your heart. It is never too big a step from God’s goodness, grace, mercy, and blessing to the fulfilment of God’s great plan in the coming of Jesus. You don’t have to force a detail to make the link explicit. But do make sure you are enjoying the God who is revealing himself through this beautiful book.
Say what you see – the Psalms ask to be prayed or sung. As you read through Psalms, you may find a tune already in your mind. For example, Psalm 34 and Psalm 68 seem to strike up several songs because of songs sung in my church growing up or today. Other Psalms may feel very unfamiliar in their wording. Yet, often they offer the very words my heart wants to be praying to God. That feeling of profound contemporary relevance is not rare when spending time in Psalms. So let the words work in your heart and then let the words work on your lips, whether you are singing God’s praise or crying out to God in prayer.
Share what you see – the Psalms are asking to be passed along. There is something incredibly transferable about the blessing of Psalms. The simplicity of application, the power of the imagery, the brevity of the written context – it all means you have something to share with others in conversation or with friends via text message. Psalms is a book that joins you in the most secret place of suffering or struggle, and yet it is a book that can spill out to others in the everyday activities of life. Share what you are blessed to see.
What do you appreciate about the book of Psalms? What have I missed?