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Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.

Reading the Scriptures

My dear brother,
You gave me much gratification when you informed me that you were attentive to the reading of the Scriptures. And I rejoice to find you inquiring how you may continue to read them with greater profit. I shall answer your questions, and shall also, from time to time, write you some directions on other things; such as your learning, your manners, and your amusements. I take your questions as you ask them.

1. Ought I to read the Bible in regular order?

I think you ought. Not that this should be the only way of reading—but every day you should be going forward. Suppose you were roaming through a beautiful estate, and that your object was to learn all about it. You might pursue two methods. First, you might set out at one of the gates, and follow the first path, then strike off into a grove, and walk a few steps; then branch into a garden; then return to see the fishpond or the statue. You might spend a day or two in this employment, and at the end of it you would have seen a great many beautiful things. But while you had looked at some of these four or five times over, there would be a great number of spots which you had not seen at all. Instead of looking ten times at the observatory, you might have looked at ten different scenes. What was the matter? I will tell you; you did not view it in regular order. You had no plan. So you might spend years in reading the Scriptures; and at the end of them, you would have learned many whole chapters or even books of the Bible; yet there might be some very useful parts which you would know nothing about. Why? Because you did not read in regular order.

Secondly—You might get an exact plan of the grounds, like a little map, on a piece of paper; then you might divide it off into portions, and say, "I can do so much today, and so much tomorrow, etc." Then you might go over every step of the fine park and gardens, look at every bridge, and examine every curiosity. You would have surveyed every single beauty. But what makes the difference between these methods? You viewed it this second time in regular order. Thus, too, you ought to read the Scriptures. And if you lay down a plan, and take care to observe it, and keep it up for a few years, you will know something about the whole Bible. Why? Because you read it in regular order.

2. Ought I to commit verses to memory?

Most certainly you ought; at least half a dozen every day. The more you learn by rote, the more you will be able to learn. If you get six verses every morning, for one year, you will have learned more than two thousand verses, or more than sixty chapters. But this is not all. At the end of the year, it will be as easy for you to commit twenty verses to memory, as it is now for you to commit half a dozen. The best plan I know of is to learn your verses partially just before you prepare to go to bed. Think of them as you are falling asleep, repeat them as you wake the next morning; and after your morning devotions, learn them perfectly. This you will find, was the advice of the ancients, and if you lay to heart what you learn, it will be the greatest treasure. Nobody can rob you of it. You may he shipwrecked, or robbed, or imprisoned—but no one can take this out of your memory.

3. Ought I to read the Bible for amusement?

Not exactly. If you mean reading it with a thoughtless, careless mind, certainly not. But if you mean, reading its beautiful narratives, and its lively descriptions, because you admire them, and because it refreshes and delights you, certainly it is right for you to read it thus. I have just been reading again the story of Joseph, in the book of Genesis, and I find it more charming than anything I ever saw in any history or romance. Now there is no harm in your going to the Bible for pleasure, rather than to any other book. It is remarkable that more people do not find out how much interesting history the Scriptures contain. Just think of the life of David. It is far more striking than that of Peter the Great, or Baron Trenck. Yet scarcely any one opens the Bible to find rational entertainment.

So I have answered your questions—and now I shall add a few remarks of my own. There are two books in the Bible which are exceedingly interesting and useful. One was written in poetry; the other in prose. The greater part of one was composed by a great king; the greater part of the other by his son, another great king. One was by a warrior, a musician, and a poet; the other was by the wisest monarch who ever lived. In these two books you will find directions for your devotions and your conduct. The Psalms are noble pieces of prayer, thanksgiving, and praise. The Proverbs are short sayings, every one of which is full of meaning, and rich with wisdom.

When you are older, I would recommend to you to read each of these books through once a month. The book of Psalms is already divided into portions, for every morning and evening, in the book I gave you. And the book of Proverbs has just as many chapters as there are days in the long months, one for every day. Scarcely any day will pass in which you will not find an opportunity to govern your speech or your behavior by some one of these short maxims. And as the Lord Jesus Christ is the great subject of many psalms, you will learn from the New Testament how to find him everywhere in your daily reading.

Farewell, my dear boy. Attend to your studies and your health, and, above all, offer up your heart to God.

Your affectionate brother,

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