I was reading Richard Pratt’s fine book, He Gave Us Stories. He was discussing what precious little attention we give to the work of the Holy Spirit in the task of interpreting Scripture. Of course, some articles and brief pieces discuss this, but Dr. Pratt stated that, to his knowledge, the most recent work of any size on this matter was written by John Owen over three hundred years ago. I looked up the end note for the documentation; there Pratt cites Owen and John Owen’s words smacked me between the eyes:
For a man solemnly to undertake the interpretation of any portion of Scripture without invocation of God, to be taught and instructed by his Spirit, is a high provocation of him; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from any one who thus proudly engages in work so much above his ability.
We are guilty of arrogance, not merely neglect, when we fail to beg for the Spirit’s help in the study of Scripture. We may have such arrogance even when we seem to be seeking the Spirit’s aid – I think of those times when in a light-headed tokenism we utter our slap-happy prayer 'that the Lord would guide and direct us as we study this passage.'
One shudders to think how flippant we are.
But how many more times we neglect any overt seeking of the Spirit’s help! The pressure is on. The passage must be studied for the sermon or lesson. We pull out our exegetical notes; we grab several of the better commentaries off the shelf; make sure one Bible dictionary of choice is close at hand. Deep into our study time, the thought occurs to us that we have not looked – nor did we think of looking – to the God who breathed out this Scripture to give us an understanding of the Scripture. He will likely give that understanding through the tools we use, but when we use tools while neglecting Him, the tools have become idols.
We may have a high view of the Bible; we may be distraught because large sectors of the church seem to ignore its authority. Yet in our own Scripture work, we easily ignore its chief Interpreter. Professionalism rather than piety drives us. We needn’t be surprised at our sterility and poverty if we refuse to be beggars for the Spirit’s help.
There is a well-worn story of George Gillespie at the meeting of Parliament and the Westminster Assembly. Someone made a long and studious argument in favor of Erastianism. His associates urged young Gillespie to answer it. Gillespie repeated the substance of the previous discourse and refuted it. It was common in the Assembly for those listening to take notes while someone was speaking – as an aid to their memory. George Gillespie had seemed to be doing just that while listening to the speaker he later refuted. But when his friends could sneak a look at Gillespie’s notebook, all they could find were scribblings like, ‘Lord, send light,’ ‘Lord, give assistance,’ ‘Lord, defend thine own cause.’
That must ever be our attitude toward interpreting Scripture. We must begin with the Spirit (cf. Gal. 3:3), and we must not only begin with Him, but we must keep returning to Him again and again.
We always must begin with begging.
To learn more about everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our guide: Handling Scripture.
This extract is taken from The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts
by Dale Ralph Davis, (Mentor/Christian Focus Publications, Fearn, Ross-shire 2012)