11The Lord was passing by: a great and strong wind came, rending mountains and shattering rocks before him, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. There came a voice: ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’ 14‘Because of my great zeal for the Lord God of Hosts,’ he replied.
1 Kings 19: 11b-14a – Revised English Bible
Over the months, an increasing number of my readers have told me that they’re reaching out for something, but they’re not quite sure what. These are people who have no tradition or background in Christianity, but they feel that following their experience of COVID and lockdown, something important seems to be missing from their lives. They’re reaching out for God, perhaps, rather than for formalised religion, and they don’t know how to make progress.
It’s perhaps the height of stupidity to try to cover the issue of the Bible in a few short blog posts, but I no longer feel I can ignore their cries for help. For those of you of a more mature faith, I would ask you to forgive that this post is aimed at those further back on the road than you are.
It’s also dangerous territory that I’m embarking on; it sometimes seems that the Bible divides Christians more than it unites them.
In this post, I’ll give a few pointers to how to approach and read the Bible; these are all things that I’ve found helpful. And in future posts, I’ll move on to provide some guidance about some of the pitfalls and dangers, as well as give some suggestions about which parts of the Bible to start with, and other issues.
Which Bible version to choose?
The sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I’ve put the words ‘a still small voice’ in bold in the above quotation from 1 Kings 19. There are two reasons for this. The first is to underline the fact that phrases from the Bible have entered our language sometimes subliminally; the Revised English Bible from which I’ve taken the passage includes the words ‘a faint murmuring sound’ instead of ‘a still small voice’, which is the phrase that is used in the King James Version (sometimes referred to as the KJV or Authorised version). It’s my first small tip about reading the Bible, that the best technical translation might not be the one that speaks best to us, as it might miss a phrase that lies somewhere deep in our consciousness. In this case, many people might have picked up the phrase ‘still small voice’ from a famous hymn, ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, which includes this final verse:
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind
O still small voice of calm!
O still small voice of calm!
(John Greenleaf Whittier)
So if the KJV is more poetic and more part of our culture and our consciousness, why not just stick with the KJV and read that as your chosen Bible version? My answer is that eventually you’ll have to grapple with the letters of St Paul, which are an important part of the New Testament. My experience has been that St Paul’s meaning is sometimes difficult enough to grasp anyway, without the additional challenge of having to deal with early seventeenth century English.
So, I would recommend that you choose a modern translation of the Bible, rather than the KJV, albeit if you have the time and the interest, having both and comparing the texts will maybe point you to where translation has become a difficulty.
To show you how translation difficulties can completely change the meaning of texts, see my earlier blog:
The New Testament was written in Greek and although I’ve never studied it, I know enough about it to tell you that there are many words in first century Greek that simply don’t have one easy single English equivalent.
I’ve found that the Revised English Bible is the easiest to read; you can get a copy brand new in hard back for £26.54, or a second-hand copy for a fraction of that. I would also advise having a Bible that includes the ‘Apocrypha’, 15 books that appear between the Old and New Testaments but which are not included in all translations (the Apocrypha is not included, for example, as part of any New International Version).
The Revised Standard Version or New Revised Standard Versions are good alternatives and can be bought with the Apocrypha, which includes some precious parts of scripture.
With that by way of background, now a few points about how to read the Bible:
Peace and Time. Often those reaching for belief are given a Bible and simply told to read it. Please don’t do this. If you do, you may come out of the experience having gained very little. It’s a modern curse that we all spend our lives in a state of eternal ‘busy-ness’. The objective of reading the Bible is for you to allow God to speak to you. If you are too busy to listen for his voice, and if you therefore read the Bible as you would a newspaper, or ‘skim-read’ it, you’ll miss so much, believe me.
I can almost hear some of you groaning. How can I find the time? Maybe you could look for ‘gaps’ in your time? What about reading a single line from a Bible passage and then allowing yourself to mull it over when you’re showering? Could you read and/or reflect whilst on trains or buses? Try being objective about where your time goes and you may find that a lot of it is wasted. Do you get much from reading social media? Would you get more by spending this time wondering what God might want to say to you? If you have to do routine tasks, as most of us do, such as cleaning, ironing, gardening, walking to the bus stop etc, try to make the best use of this time. Walking (particularly, but not essentially, in the countryside) is an excellent way of preparing your mind, as is listening to calming music.
When you’ve decided what you’re going to read (about which more on my next blogs) consider going to https://bible.oremus.org/ where you can look up a passage and then print it out. This means that you can carry the passage around with you, rather than have to carry the whole Bible, and if you have a small break, even five minutes, use that opportunity.
What you should be asking yourself as you read are questions like these:
- What is it that I don’t understand? An Internet search should be able to help you with ‘biblical’ words that aren’t part of daily life, like righteousness, redemption, incarnation, justification etc. But there may still be questions. Mull over them; an answer may come to you.
- What has struck me as important or noteworthy?
- What doesn’t sound right?
- What might God have to say about this passage? You may find, as others have, that God is actually the saddest person in the Bible, as he constantly grieves for our rejection of him and of his values.
- If I had to explain this passage to someone else who’d never read it, how might I sum it up? What questions might I ask the other person to give a view on?
Don’t expect to get everything ‘on the button’ first time. You’ll need to be patient, to be aware that generations have struggled with some passages and you’ll also have to accept that not every passage has a simple answer. The longer you allow the passage to live with you, the longer you teach yourself to listen for the still small voice on your shoulder, the longer you pray to God to help you to open your mind, the longer you can try to slow down, question and absorb, then the more eventually you’ll get out of the experience. Please don’t be in a rush. My experience has been that a passage can suddenly and unexpectedly offer some new meaning, after the passage of a considerable time.
Let me finish with an example, to show you the kind of questioning that you’re looking for, from Matthew 5:38-39, where Jesus is addressing the crowd:
38You have heard that they were told, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” 39But what I tell you is this: Do not resist those who wrong you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other also.
Is this an appeal to submit yourself to those who do you harm? It’s often been interpreted that way. Is it an appeal to encourage those who wish to harm you to do their worst? Is it a pacifist charter? Again, it’s often been taken that way. But why ‘on the right cheek’? Is this a clue?
Once you realise that the only way that a normal right-handed person can slap someone else on their right cheek is with the back of their hand; and once you appreciate that this is the way that only people you want to insult and belittle are treated, then maybe you can start to see that an appeal to slap you on the other, left cheek, might be a non-violent way of appealing to the person doing the slapping to treat you as an equal.
Bingo! A whole new possible meaning opens up! This interpretation may not be right, but it challenges you to think further.
This takes much time and patience and thought. But all I can say is that trying to do this is hugely worthwhile and has opened up the Bible to me in a magical way, since I started trying.
Watch this space for further comments about how to develop a relationship with God that is unique to you, using the Bible, in the next two posts!
Heavenly Father, you know that we live our lives in a rush. Help us to slow down, to listen in all the noise and the haste and the busy-ness for your ‘still small voice’. Amen.