Meditating on the Word: Reading the Bible Devotionally

If you’ve been attending church, you have probably been encouraged to read your Bible devotionally, that is, privately, on a regular, daily basis. In your experience of the Bible, you’ve encountered statements like, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day,” and, “Blessed is the man … [whose] delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he mediates day and night.” (Psalm 119:97 and 1:1-2, emphasis mine.) [1] There’s much to be said on this subject, but this brief article will attempt to introduce the what, why, and how of devotional Bible reading.

What does it mean to read your Bible devotionally? Bible-scholar B. B. Warfield notes that the word “devotion” has two meanings: both “zealous application” and “a religious exercise”. [2] Bible reading should be done with “zealous application”, that is, devotedly, or with whole-hearted commitment. Bible reading should also be approached as “a religious exercise”, with heart-felt responsiveness and worship to the God whose word it is. One can detect both these senses in Psalm 1:1-2: “his delight is in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night.” Devotional Bible reading is reading the Bible on a regular basis with both careful observation and conscientious observance of what is read. It’s not just a box to check on your to-do list, but it is on your to-do list.

Having spoken to what it is, let me walk through some of the why and how of devotional Bible reading. Why read the Bible devotionally? If you consult Psalm 19 and Romans 1, you find that God shows everyone truth about himself in nature. Yet Romans 1 also teaches us of our sinful tendency: “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). In other words, anything we learn of God outside the Bible, we tend to keep out of the forefront of our minds so that we will not be compelled to obey. Thus, the Psalmist, after celebrating God’s speech in nature, goes on to commend the Bible in superior terms: perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, true, precious, delightful, soul-reviving, wisdom-giving, heart-rejoicing, eye-enlightening, full of needful warnings and reward for those who heed them. Believers should read the Bible eagerly, because there they see Jesus. As Jesus said, “it is they [the Scriptures] that bear witness about me” (John 5:39), and the Apostle Paul wrote of the clear-sighted vision with which a believer can read the Bible, under the ministry of the Holy Spirit: “and we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed from one degree of glory to another.” (2Cor 3:18)

How can you read your Bible devotionally? In the space remaining, let me give one negative direction, and several positive directions. First, the negative: don’t bounce around to different places in the Bible haphazardly. Adopt a plan. [3] The Bible, while unified by the intentions of a singular Divine author, is a collection of 66 different books with a variety of human authors. It helps to read these books continuously to catch their true meaning. Begin in the Gospels, perhaps Mark or John, then read some of Paul’s Epistles, like Romans or Galatians, and then go on to tackle accessible Old Testament books like Genesis or 1-2 Samuel – and don’t forget to dip into the treasure-trove of the Psalms for their language of prayer and praise. [4] Set aside a time and place conducive to focused attention, and have paper and pen handy to jot down the sense of what you read and how you can respond in prayer or action. Pray for God’s help before you read, and pray in response to what you’ve read. Take as long or short a time as you can. Ask your pastor for other suggestions or helps. He would be delighted. And, as you devote yourself to reading, may you come to find it a delight as well.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of Walton Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is enjoying life with his wife and son in the Catskill region of Upstate New York.

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[1] Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).

[2] Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Religious Life of Theological Students.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 6, no. 2 (Fall, 2015), 185. http://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj6g.pdf

[3] Plans are readily available, for example, at http://www.ligonier.org/blog/bible-reading-plans/ or https://www.esv.org/resources/reading-plans/

[4] See Donald S. Whitney, Praying the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).


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