In seminary, my preaching professor told me, “There’s a constant pressure in preaching. It always feels like Sunday is a day away.” He was right. Each Monday I felt behind studying for Sunday. Sadly, the pressure to produce another sermon can diminish the quality of your time with God while studying in sermon preparation. Your Tent of Meeting can unknowingly become an endless task list. Your deep conversations with God over his Word can erode into merely looking for sermon material.
In my four decades of preaching, I’ve weathered those seasons. In them, I felt I was cheating myself and the people. I knew I needed to recover the awe and wonder of studying God’s Word. The following were helpful reminders to me. Reminding myself to study fearfully, prayerfully, submissively, humbly, gratefully made sermon preparation worship again rather than empty work.
I love R.C. Sproul’s understanding of holy. In The Holiness of God, he explains the root Hebrew word translated as “holy” means more than “to cut apart” or “separate.” When attributed to God, it means “a cut above.”1 How true! God is holy. He’s a cut above us in every way. So is his Word.2 Yet, because we can read or study the Bible any time, we may begin treating it like any other book. The narrative of Uzzah’s death reminds us of God’s jealousy for his holiness.
While transporting the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, the ox pulling the cart stumbles. Uzzah places his hand on the ark to secure it, and God kills him.3 When Uzzah treats what is sacred as common, God makes an example of him. This causes David, who already loves God, to fear him more deeply (2 Sam. 6:5–9).
For me, the narrative about Uzzah teaches a right fear when studying Scripture. I need to fear mishandling Scripture. We all should. Any mishandling not only affects our understanding, it also influences the understanding of those we teach. And sometimes, a wrong understanding lasts for generations. That’s why God’s warning goes beyond Uzzah.
James 3:1 warns pastors and teachers, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Then there is Matthew 18:5–6. Here, the warning extends from pastors to parents and any whose view wrongly influences a child. Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
“Because mishandling Scripture can affect generations, there should be a healthy fear in handling it.”—Mark Becton
Because mishandling Scripture can affect generations, there should be a healthy fear in handling it. However, a healthy fear has two sides illustrated by David in the incident with Uzzah.
David’s first response was fear of God’s wrath (2 Sam. 6:9). David stops the transport and orders the ark placed in the house of Obed-edom. In essence, David says, “Put it there and don’t touch it.” But, for the next three months, David hears how God is blessing Obed-edom (2 Sam. 6:10–11). This prompts David not only to resume bringing the ark to Jerusalem but to worship God the whole way. Every six steps there was a sacrifice as David danced for joy before the Lord. That’s the other side of fearing God (2 Sam. 6:12–15).
Yes, there is trembling before a holy God. A good portion of the hundred-plus references of fearing God in Scripture shows it. But, other references to fearing God portray reverence and worship. It describes our joyful awe over his nature and grace. These are the two responses that David showed: healthy fear and joyful worship.
Therefore, when studying Scripture, we need to carry a right, whole, and healthy fear. There needs to be a fear of mishandling it, of offending God’s holiness, of causing harm to ourselves and others. Yet, there also needs to be worship and awe with each step. As God reveals his nature, as we see our sin in light of his holiness, and as we see his grace in light of our sin, we should worship joyfully before the Lord. Most who’ve studied Scripture for years know when you’ve experienced both sides of that fear—the trembling and the dancing. And remarkably, it’s what makes us want to approach God through his Word and study more.
If you’re like me, you schedule your study or it won’t happen. And even when it happens, you can find yourself deep in study realizing you never asked God’s help. That’s like entering an operating room for an appendectomy and telling the surgeon, “I don’t need you. I can figure it out.”
Studying Scripture is like surgery. When we open the Bible, the Father uses it to open us. And when we realize that God inspired forty writers, over 1,500 years, to pen his timeless Word in three languages, we also realize that we definitely need his help when we study it. So, here are a couple of prayers I’ve prayed over the years when studying Scripture.
First, “Father, fill me with your Spirit. Open my understanding to Scripture. Take me by the hand and guide me.” The beauty of this prayer is its promise and history. The night before his crucifixion, Jesus promises, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). What a promise!
We cannot understand Scripture, the very Word the Holy Spirit breathed, without him opening our understanding and guiding us. The word guide here is the same used in Acts 8:31. There the Ethiopian tells Philip, “How can I [understand this passage from Isaiah 53], unless someone guides me?” This Greek word “guide” portrays a parent leading a child by the hand. This is a comforting image and prayer. We are asking God’s Spirit to walk us through Scripture, to help us understand what the Spirit is saying about himself, us, and life, especially in the context of the experiences he’s purposed for us.
And, I love how quickly Jesus proves this promise true. Before Jesus ascends, Luke 24:45 records, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Jesus enables them to connect the dots regarding his crucifixion, resurrection, and their role in taking the gospel to the nations.4
A second prayer I pray while studying Scripture is: “Father, help me so I see and say nothing more or less than what you are saying in your Word.” I pray the first prayer resting in the Father’s nature. I pray this second prayer, however, aware of the extremes in my fallen nature, especially when handling God’s Word. Scripture provides a sobering record.
In the Old Testament, Israel constantly ignores God’s commands. They did less than he said. In the New Testament, Jesus confronts the Pharisees for adding extra standards to what God said. They did more. Knowing that my longing for comfort or self-righteousness will take me to either extreme—subtraction or addition—I have to ask the Father’s help. I need to see what God is truly saying, nothing more or less, even if what he is saying is uncomfortable.
As explained earlier, the fact that God breathed and spoke Scripture into existence makes it holy. Therefore, we should expect Scripture to affect us like Isaiah in Isaiah 6.
R.C. Sproul describes Isaiah as a man “considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation.”5 Yet upon seeing the glory of God, hearing the seraphim crying, “holy, holy, holy,” Isaiah cowers and cries, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5).
This is not unusual. Gideon, Samson’s parents, Job, Peter, and John all express the fear of dying when confronted by God’s holiness. Among them, however, Isaiah is more explicit about how he feels. He says, “Woe is me! For I am lost.”
I grew up quoting Isaiah in the King James Version. There, he says, “Woe is me! for I am undone.” The root Hebrew word translated “undone” means to be struck dumb or destroyed. However, I like how R.C. Sproul describes it,
To be undone means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled. What Isaiah was expressing is what modern psychologists describe as the experience of personal disintegration. To disintegrate means exactly what the word suggests, disintegrate. . . . Then he [Isaiah] caught one sudden glimpse of a holy God. In that moment all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second, he was exposed made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed—morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart.6
Isaiah’s sense of being emotionally and spiritually unraveled is personal to me. I’ve experienced it. It wasn’t because I sought it or achieved it by being more disciplined than others. Like Isaiah, I was surprised when God confronted me with his holiness in Scripture.
Being unraveled by God is so disconcerting. I doubt any of us truly pursue that kind of confrontation. Yet, we should expect it when studying the Bible. And, from experience, the process of unraveling often resembles Isaiah’s. We experience both his pain and praise. After studying fearfully, prayerfully, and submissively we realize God’s gracious aim for unraveling us is to re-weave us, or as Paul says, God “conforms us to the image of Christ.” (Rom. 8:29) After re-weaving us, we find ourselves, in our studies worshipping him, in awe of God, like Isaiah does many times.
- R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 1985, 1998), 36. Sproul writes, “The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word that means ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ To translate this basic meaning into contemporary language would be to use the phrase, ‘a cut apart.’ Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase ‘a cut above something.’” ↩
- 2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:21 ↩
- 2 Samuel 6:1–11 ↩
- Luke 24:45–49 ↩
- Sproul, 28. Sproul adds regarding Isaiah, “He was respected as a paragon of virtue.” ↩
- Sproul, 27–28. ↩