Friday, September 08, 2006

Books a Million

Solomon warned, “Of the making of books there is no end.”

For someone who loves to read books, this seems like great news. However, Solomon’s full quotation is as follows:

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails-- given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 11)

His point seems to be that there will always be new speculations, new philosophies, and new arguments. Wholeness is not obtained through keeping up with every latest book, but through understanding and fearing God. Those things we need to know are hard hitting truths – “well driven nails.” Elsewhere God asked, quite rhetorically, “Is not my word like a fire? And like a hammer that breaks rocks in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23)

For this reason God gave us, as one of my teachers used to say, “Only 66 books.” The 39 books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus…) and the 27 of the New (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John…)

Don’t get me wrong. Other books can be insightful, funny, useful, whatever. I don’t believe Solomon, and the whole of God’s word, is urging us away from the gift of reading a good book. We’re being urged away from living a lopsided life. Most tragically this happens when one reads about God, about truth, about the world, but never truly engages it through righteous living and loving service to others.

Jesus kept busy.

Yet books often help us understand the One Book we’re expected to truly master. We read this ancient yet modern book called the Bible and naturally yearn to understand its background, or to uncover something about the original languages. As a pastor, I certainly use commentaries; they help to keep me honest and to keep me interesting.

Yet finding a good commentary is difficult. Here’s why. The Bible is described well by Solomon: its words are like “well driven nails.” Yet commentaries are generally dry, often self-indulgent, and nowadays are rarely aimed at promoting righteous living. Many commentaries belabor simple points (were there sycamore trees in Jesus’ day, or was Luke just making this up?) in order to appease Scripture’s nay-sayers. It’s harder and harder these days to walk away from a commentary feeling uplifted, challenged, repentant, or enamored of God.

I’m not saying commentaries are not helpful, and I might even say that some of the better ones are essential for a pastor’s work. But truth be told, I’m sure disappointed with the many words of men.

Which is why I have to go back again and again to those 66 books.

“Is not my word like fire?” (Jeremiah 23)

Yes, Lord, it is. Please keep your servants from quenching it!

No comments: