The longest Psalm in the Bible is a literary masterpiece. Covering one hundred and seventy-six verses the song is an impressive feat of creativity and command of language. In sets of eight lines each, the writer of the Psalm uses each letter of the alphabet to commend and speak of the power of the Word of God—“Aleph” through “Taw” (A to Z). In some ways, the Psalm itself is a grade-school alphabet primer to teach not only a language, but the greatness of the Word of God. While it might have been used in an educational environment to teach Hebrew children their ABC’s, the Psalm itself shows a powerful aspect of God’s Word that is often overlooked—namely its beauty. Consider for a moment the creativity of a writer who took the painstaking time to consider and weigh every word so that each line began with the proper Hebrew letter as well as making sure that the lines themselves were coherent. Each point makes sense. For the writer, the language became an artistic tool, like a chisel in the hands of a master carpenter to create something solid and indelible. Language became the vehicle of beauty and that beauty created desire.
Beauty is the spring of desire. It makes perfect sense that what our hearts, minds, bodies, and even our tongues and ears perceive as beautiful becomes more and more desirable to us. The Bible itself becomes an artisan spring of refreshment calling us to desire God more and more. God uses words to display his beauty, and even the words themselves are beautiful, artistic, creative, and delightful. But we frequently overlook the beauty of the Book.
The Bible As Textbook
When I was a senior in high school I began to visit colleges to assess whether the school would be a good fit for me and to see if I would click with a program of study that I would pursue as a vocation. I remember spending time one evening with a group of guys in a Bible college dorm asking them about the school and what pitfalls and snares I might face there. The students didn’t talk about the pitfalls of the city or the allurements of the party scene. They talked about the danger of the Bible.
Specifically, my counselors warned me against the danger of the Bible becoming a mere textbook. Yet this is how so many of us treat the Bible today. Instead of God’s Word being a beautiful, artistic, life-giving stream the Bible is shaped to become to just a history text book. Most history textbooks I remember were pretty boring. This is the approach we often take to the Bible. “Now class, open your book to page 116 where we are going to study the exodus of Israel.” Pretty boring.
The Bible becomes a textbook when we allow it to just be a source of information. We just look for knowledge to help us identify what to do and when to do it. We use the Bible to know the facts, dates, and timelines of the history of God’s people so that when we reach the pearly gates we can answer the appropriate question about when Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and exiled the Israelites (hint: 586 B.C.). We become Bible fact-givers that could topple any foe in a rousing game of Bible Trivia with our knowledge and profound grasp of information.
But we stand in serious danger of losing out on the reality and heart of the Bible. The beauty that draws us to desire God more. The Pharisees’ of Jesus’ day were in perilous danger of the same thing themselves. Jesus confronted them and said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (Jn. 5:39–40). We use the Bible as a textbook for information but miss the beauty Scripture seeks to make us eagerly desire—Jesus Christ.
Beauty in the Book
How does God use words to cause us to thirst and hunger for him? How does the Bible become a spring that makes us thirsty for the water of life? One way the Bible itself develops thirst is by itself being a thirst-inducing piece of literature. Creativity, beauty, imagination, and a master-level command of language creates something distinctly unique and beautiful. As Harper Lee said, “The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. No book in the world equals the Bible for that.” Like Psalm 119 the creativity of the writers of Scripture is profound and deep. Scripture itself is a myriad of types of genre, style, and creative energy. If we really pay attention to these aspects of good literature within the Bible itself the beauty of the book shines forth in a new way that makes us thirsty for God.
The Bible is not just one style or genre. It’s abundantly creative in the types of writing it contains. God uses story to draw us into the drama of his work. He uses poetry to move our emotions and hearts. He uses genres like fantasy to spark and overwhelm our imaginations with things that we can not fully perceive. He draws us into life on the street through letting us read the personal letters of pastors to the churches they love so much. He shows us the power of sin through the legal documentation of the law so that we despair of our own righteousness and flee to Christ. He helps us walk well through life by giving us memorable, witty, yet dense sayings of wisdom. He provides language for our hearts through song so that we pray and answer God in all his glory.
The Bible is not a monochromatic history. The more we see the complexity and beauty of each genre, the more we will desire to know and delight in the God of the Bible.
Engage the Book
Psalm 119 powerfully invites us to love and engage the Bible because of its beauty. How do we sing and say with the writer of Psalm 119:24, “I find my delight in your commandments, which I love”? God doesn’t make it difficult for us, like taking down some awful tasting cough medicine. He attracts us with beautiful literature that leads us to a beautiful God.
To see the beauty of God’s word we should engage the Bible itself. Utilizing resources like Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s Reading the Bible For All It’s Worth will help us understand the genres and diversity of the Bible. Leland Ryken’s How to Read the Bible as Literature is another excellent source of help to see the beauty in the Bible’s diverse genres. Beyond helpful resources about the Bible we should open up and engage the Bible itself in its beauty.
Augustine was engaged by the beauty of the Bible as he heard little children singing “Tolle lege” (“take up and read”) so he took up the beautiful book and began to read the Bible. As God spoke Augustine saw the spring from which everlasting water flows—Christ himself. We would be wise to do the same. “Take up and read” to see the beauty of God’s word.
Jeremy Writebol (@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over fourteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He is the pastor of Woodside Bible Church’s Plymouth, MI campus.