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The Sabbath School and Bible Teaching
Bible History


The sacred history contained in the Bible is the most wonderful and the most instructive in the world. Nothing but our familiarity with it could prevent us from reading-it with breathless interest. While other histories narrate the sayings and actions of men only, in this, we hear God speaking with audible voice ; we see white-winged angels descending on messages of mercy; and we learn that God was manifest in flesh; that the soil of this earth has been pressed by more than mortal feet, and that eyes of uncreated intelligence have looked on its beauty and its misery. While other histories recount the struggles of mankind for political freedom, and their progress in civilisation, the Scriptures record the great battle which has been fought and won for the redemption of the immortal spirit of man. And while the world and time are the limits of other histories, in this is revealed to us the wonders of the land of spirits, and the glory of the kingdom of heaven. The benefits of historical teaching are generally acknowledged. We shall notice three uses of Bible history. 

1. It supplies us "with practical moral lessons. These are deduced from the actions of men, and illustrate their characters, talents, passions, and temptations. The same object is attained by common history, but in an inferior degree. The characters of Scripture are the best or the worst that have appeared in the world; and their actions those which have had the greatest influence on the weal or woe of mankind. A familiar acquaintance with the Bible, by the light which it sheds upon humanity, affords, indeed, many of the benefits, without the peril, of a personal experience of the world.

2. It awakens the reader's moral sympathies, by interesting him in the actions of those whose history it records. As we learn politeness less by direct maxims than by associating with good company; so, the refinements of morality are best taught by example. There are a thousand niceties, and delicate traits of good feeling, which cannot be reduced to rule. For instance, we have a beautiful illustration of generous feeling in the life of David—"And David," we are told, "longed, and said, that one would give me drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem!" but when his warriors brought it, "he would not drink thereof, but poured it out unto the Lord and he said, Be it far from me, O Lord, that I should do this; is not this the blood of the men that went in jeopardy of their lives?" How touching, also, and how full of meaning, the brief sentence in the gospel of John, "Jesus wept!"

The Bible excels all other histories in moral power. Not to speak of the example of minor characters, such as Abraham, Daniel, and Paul, what a mighty influence must the daily exhibition of the character of the Lord Jesus have on the susceptible mind of a child! Here we see a perfection not enthroned in unapproachable splendour, nor displaying itself in acts of regal power, but appearing in the weakness of infancy, in the docility of childhood, and the wisdom of manhood; we behold it exemplified in a patience which no reproaches could ruffle, in a purity on which temptation could bring no stain, and a self-sacrificing devotedness before which the heroism of the holiest men waxes dim. Converse with such society is the meetest preparation for heaven.

The sympathy which is excited by the perusal of history may be turned to a very practical account. When a direct charge is made against an individual, he stands on his defence; but he is thrown off his guard in reading a story, and approves or condemns in another what he might very reluctantly admit as true of himself. He is thus prepared for a more personal appeal. When Nathan related the parable of the ewe-lamb to David, we are informed, "His anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that has done this thing shall surely die." With what tremendous power must Nathan's accusation, "Thou art the man," have followed this decision!

3. But Bible history occupies ground distinct from all other history, in that it is the foundation of the Christian's faith. Upon it rest all the hopes of the believer. He reads the history of the old world, of the children of Israel, and of Jesus Christ, not only for their moral lessons and examples, but to assure himself that God is love, and that through Christ the world is redeemed. In the four gospels, in particular, we have a deep personal interest; they are the history of our Saviour. In the life of the Saviour, we see him drinking a cup of sorrow which we might have drained to the dregs; and in his death, we behold the atonement for our sins.

Let us now turn to the mode of teaching Bible history. We shall begin with noticing one or two of the less important and preliminary topics which require to be taught.

1. Miscellaneous subjects. These lie on the surface of the history, and have been referred to already in the chapter on Explanation. They comprise such things as social customs, diet, dress, dwellings, climate, division of time, natural history, and the like. The information communicated on these subjects should be select rather than copious, as they occupy a very subordinate place in religious teaching.

2. Geography. It is necessary to have a correct idea of the position of different countries and towns, before a narrative can be properly understood. We have found a knowledge of the geography of Palestine to be extremely limited in our Sabbath-schools. Children, otherwise intelligent, will frequently commit the most egregious blunders about towns, rivers, hills, and countries. We think, were every scholar furnished with a small map, and were he required to bring it to school with him, so as to refer to it in every difficulty in the lesson, a better knowledge of geography would soon be diffused. Geography might also form one of the subjects taught at a week-evening class. The names of the principal places in the gospels are but few, and could soon be learned.

It is the most expeditious mode of teaching geography to select one or two important places as centres, by which the position of the less important places are to be described. Thus, in order to teach the geography of Jerusalem and its neighbourhood, we should first describe Jerusalem itself, its appearance, and situation, so that the children could never confound it with anything else. From this, as a fixed and familiar point, we could then bid them cast their eyes to Gethsemane, the Valley of Jehoshaphat, the Mount of Olives, Bethphage, and Bethany. We might then proceed to the Lake of Tiberias, and make it a second centre, from which to describe the towns round its coast and neighbourhood.

3. Chronology. A knowledge of chronology is very useful to the student of the Bible; without some knowledge of it, history will be a chaos. We have found children who were pretty familiar with the lives of Abraham and Paul apart, unable to tell us whether 10 years, or 100 years, or 1000 years, had elapsed between the periods in which they lived. One mode of teaching chronology, to be found in the biographical catechisms, is to give the scholars a mere dry list of names, dates, and facts, to commit to memory. This we regard as inflicting needless toil on the learner. If pains were taken to fix upon the memory the dates of each event in the current lesson of the day; if these events are connected, as they ought to be, with what preceded and succeeded them; and if frequent revision is made of the information thus taught, —we believe a good knowledge of chronology may be very easily communicated.

One reason why a bare outline of events is difficult to remember, is, that it excites no interest. When we read that Abram was called out- of Mesopotamia; that he then went to Palestine, and afterwards to Egypt; we read a succession of hare facts which address no feeling or passion of our nature; and as they excite no interest at the moment, they are not likely to be treasured up in the memory.

A second reason why outlines are so difficult to remember is, that they give us no leading thoughts on which to suspend the rest. They are a dead level of dry facts like a dictionary, and are destitute of colour, life, and proportion. The name of a town occupies as much space as the most important adventure; and mention is made with the same passionless calmness of a martyr and a murderer, a marriage and a death, a patriot and a tyrant.

The shortest method, therefore, of teaching chronology, is to select the more remarkable events; discuss them at length ; and then, with these as piers, bridge over the gaps between with the less important particulars.

That this is the more natural and efficient plan may be proved by an example. Let us suppose that a person, otherwise intelligent, were to peruse the history of Abraham for the first time, and at the end of a month, let us say, were to be questioned to ascertain how much of it he remembered. What would be the nature or amount of his knowledge? We believe that what he remembered best would be the more striking incidents; while the general outline of the history would be indistinct, at least the incidents would help to the outline, rather than the outline to the particulars. Thus he would probably recollect the call of Abram, and his arrival in Canaan; but he might forget where he pitched his tent, and the names of the different wells he dug. He might remember the generosity of Abram in giving Lot the choice of the land, and how he rescued Lot from the hands of the four kings; but many of the minor, incidents, which are necessary to the continuity. of the narrative, would be very faintly recalled. The stories of Hagar and Ishmael, of Abraham entertaining three angels, of the destruction of Sodom, and the offering up of Isaac, would all be distinctly remembered ; but such events as the strife between the herdsmen of Abimelech and Abram about a well, would be almost fox-gotten. In short, the more interesting passages alone would stand out from the waters of oblivion which had rolled over the lesser details. The separate pictures, and not the outlines, are what remain imprinted on the memory. Do we not learn from this experiment what the natural order of teaching is? and that we should give the memory, in the first place, the charge of those things which it is most disposed to keep?

This principle holds good in a single lesson. In order to make a child remember the order of events, we should not first drill him into a knowledge of the bare outline of the lesson; but first fasten his attention upon what is most striking in it, and afterwards run over the outline.

This principle should also be applied to Bible History as a whole. A selection of the principal characters and events recorded in it should be the first course of lessons; a more extensive selection should form a second course; and so on till the whole was exhausted. This principle is the same as that on which our modern school-maps are constructed, where only the chief towns, hills, or rivers are filled in, a more minute map being reserved for future use.

A knowledge of chronology must not be confounded with a knowledge of history. A person may run glibly over the names of all the judges and kings of Israel, the length of their reigns, and the dates of their deaths, and be very ignorant of the real history of the Jews. True history is not a narrative of events, but of causes and consequences, of reasons and motives; facts are but the vessels in which these are contained.

An undue importance is sometimes attached by teachers to some minute particular in a lesson, as that Gaius was called "mine host," that Quartus was "a brother," or that in the miracle at Cana there were six waterpots of stone, and that each of them contained two or tbree firkins apiece. It is useful to know these things, but let us not give them undue importance.

4. The narrative. The historical incidents should be described in a lively and pictorial manner. The more real-looking we make our description, we make it the more true. An inventory of names and events is not a narrative. We require to infuse life into it in order to make it a history. Let the lesson, for example, be on 1 Kings xviii. 20-40. Here, after asking a few preliminary questions about Ahab, Elijah, Israel, and Carmel, we might address an intelligent class in this way:—

"Now let us imagine the scene: It is a day of unclouded splendour; not a solitary speck bedims the sky; wherever the eye turns, whether westward, over the waters of the Mediterranean, or northward, to the snowy cliffs of Lebanon, or towards the distant lake of Galilee and the Jordan, there is no appearance of rain. The sun pours its burning rays on the fainting people ; not a breath of air fans their brows; the sea sleeps in waveless beauty at the foot of Carmel; and on its summit are gathered, with anxious hearts, the thousands of Israel."

The scenery of a country should not occupy much attention; for, even though it could be accurately described, teachers are not landscape but historical painters.

The following is an agreeable specimen of historical narrative; it is for very young children:—

"One day, when David was watching over his sheep, a lion that was hungry came up to his field in search of food. Creeping softly along, like a cat when she sees a mouse, he suddenly gave a terrible leap, and seized upon a lamb. I am afraid the lamb had strayed too far away from the shepherd and his flock, as some boys and girls are apt to do from the kind care of their parents, and the good advice and direction of a merciful Saviour. David saw it, and running after the lion, struck him with his staff. The lion dropped the lamb, and growling with rage, turned towards David. His mane rose upon his head and neck; his eyes flashed like fire; and he gnashed his teeth. He was going to spring upon David and tear him in pieces. But God helped David to defend himself against the lion. After he had killed the lion, he took up the lamb very carefully, and carried it back to its mother. David knew very well who it was that delivered him out of the jaws of the lion ; and when he told about it, he did not forget to tell who it was who gave him strength and courage."— (Mrs Hooker.)

Our next example is in a higher style :—

A Walk to Calvary. "Look at the cross in the middle. You see the man hanging on it. He has a meek, loving face. His look is not in the least like that of a criminal. There is no trace of strong bad passions on his features. Though he is dying between two very bad men, he is a good man—the best of men—the only perfectly good man that ever lived in this world. Look at him; who is he? Your Maker. Look again; who is that? Your Saviour. Look once more at the middle cross; who is it? The Judge of all men. It is God the Son, who made, died for, and will judge, the world. Why is he there? What are his crimes? For what bad deeds is he suffering? For no crimes nor bad deeds of his own doing. He is altogether without sin. Why then does he hang on that cross? Because you, dear children, are guilty and wicked. He is dying of his own good will, in order to save you from hell. Look again; who is he? The Son of God, beloved by the Father. Why does the Father let him hang there, with big nails through his body, with his limbs out of joint, with sore burning thirst in his throat, and with people mocking him? Because he loves the world, and gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes on him may not perish, but have everlasting life. Look again; who is he? The Saviour worshipped by all the holy angels. Why do the angels let him hang there? They are strong beings, able to kill the soldiers, and take Christ down from the cross. Why do they not? Because they know that you and I must suffer, if Christ does not suffer death, and that it is his will to bear the punishment of our sins."—(Murray.)

For the sake of convenience, our illustrations of this head have been given in the shape of addresses. It is not necessary to adopt this plan in practice.

5. The moral character of the narrative. Children ought to be taught to compare characters and actions with Scripture. They should be able to give a distinct account of the true nature of every transaction of which they read, and of the reasons why they esteem it good or bad. A holy example should be compared with the law of God, or the life of Jesus, to shew its conformity to the Divine standard; and sin should be detected in all its disguises and specious appearances, and exposed to the light.

Example—Mark xiv. 66-72.—When the children have read the passage, we should illustrate the nature and aggravation of Peter's sin, by detailing the privileges which he possessed, and the laws which he violated, in this manner:—(1.) He denied his Lord, and Jesus had said, "He that denieth me before men, shall be denied before the angels." (2.) He denied Christ, though he was an apostle; and "to whom much is given, of them much shall be required." (3.) He had solemnly sworn not to desert Jesus; and "it is better not to vow, than to vow and not pay;" and (4.) He had been plainly warned of his danger; "He that knew his Lord's will, and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes."

Or, again, if our lesson were Peter's obedience to the call of Christ, recorded in Matt. iv. 18—in order to instruct the class in the moral character of the passage, we should illustrate in detail the qualities which make the obedience of Peter remarkable; as that he left his all; he left his all cheerfully; he left it immediately; and he left his all for Christ. An examination of Scripture history in this manner, will quicken the moral faculties of the children, teach them the boundaries of right and wrong, and give them decided opinions with regard to the good or the evil of the world.

The teacher should endeavour to illustrate the character of the actions by appropriate Scripture references. Thus, were Stephen's dying prayer our lesson, we might illustrate its noble spirit by a reference to our Lord's words, "Pray for them which despitefully use you;" and by our Lord's example, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Or if the lesson were on Luke xiii. 13, we might justly contrast the conduct of the woman mentioned here, who, on being restored to health, glorified God, with the conduct of the nine lepers who, on being cured, went away without once thanking Christ for their deliverance.

In depicting the characters of individuals, we should endeavour to be impartial. There is a certain traditionary character attached to the persons mentioned in Scripture which is not always just. Gallio, who "cared for none of these things," is sometimes mistaken for a sample of a man perfectly indifferent to religion; a more exact scrutiny may modify this judgment. We are not warranted from the cautious while cheering expressions regarding Abijah, that "in him is found some good thing toward the Lord God of Israel," to affirm that he was possessed of every excellence ; nor need we, from Esau's criminal slighting of the birthright, pourtray him as a monster of wickedness.

We should be careful to describe the character and attributes of God in accordance with Scripture analogy. Let us beware of representing God as a just God only, and a terrible. His goodness in man's creation, in his constant provision for our happiness, and in the gift of his Son, ought to have a prominent place in our instructions. But it is equally an error to teach only that "God is love," God "the righteous governor" is to be described, as well as God "the merciful Father."

In depicting character, let us suit ourselves to the capacities of our scholars. Children's minds are tender; but they are not refined, and their susceptibilities have a limited range. A child will understand how great the love of Christ was in dying for sinners, much earlier than he will appreciate his humiliation in becoming man; and he will see the kindness of Jesus in committing Mary to the care of the beloved disciple, much easier than the wonderful considerateness of the bequest, amid his own dying agonies. Much, therefore, which may add to the beauty of a discourse for adults, must be omitted in a lesson for children.

6. The last step in teaching Bible history is to draw suitable lessons from it for the instruction of the children. From the particulars of a narrative, we ascend to general principles, and from events to their causes. Thus, from the flood, we learn the holiness of God; from the return of the Jews to their own land, we learn His faithfulness; and from the cross, His love. In the repeated lapses of the Israelites into idolatry, we see an illustration of man's depravity; from Elijah's ascension into heaven, we learn the immortality of the soul; and from Peter's acceptance by Jesus, the value of repentance. These lessons it is the teacher's duty to disengage from the narrative.

We do not think the principle on which lessons ought to be drawn from the Bible has been always very well understood. Some think it enough that the inference (so called) be just in itself though it may have little to do with the passage. Others catch at the words of a lesson, overlooking the connexion, and make every passage prove anything, as in the case of the Roman Catholic, who inferred from the words, "Rise, Peter, kill and eat," the duty of killing heretics.

Now, it should be recollected that a teacher's sole business, in drawing lessons, is to discover what the passage before him really does teach. He is not an inventor, but a discoverer, and will find ample room for his talents in the profundities of divine history. We think the same natural principle on which inferences are deduced from any common history or incident, ought to be applied to the Bible. We shall give an example :—

"In the year 628, while this country was in a great measure under the dominion of heathenism, some Christian missionaries appeared at the court of King Edwin, and besought a favourable reception to their doctrines. A council of the chiefs was held, to deliberate on the new faith. After much consultation, a warrior rose and said:—

"'Thou must recollect, O king, a thing which happens in the days of winter. When thou art seated at table with thy captains and thy men-at-arms; when a good fire is blazing—when it is warm in thy hall, but rains, storms, and snows are without; then comes a little bird, and darts across the hall, flying in at one door and out at the other. The instant of this transit is sweet to him, for then he feels neither rain nor hurricane; but that instant is short—the bird is gone in the twinkling of an eye—and from winter he passes forth to winter again. Such, to me, seems the life of men on this earth; such its momentary course, compared with the length of time that precedes and follows it.'"

On reading this anecdote, we naturally begin to reflect on its different parts. It presents us with a lively picture of the condition of our own country twelve hundred years ago, in many respects similar to that of the South Sea Islanders, when visited by Williams.

We are painfully struck with the ignorance of our heathen ancestors as to a future state. We feel interested in the old warrior, who has so beautifully illustrated his own feelings; and we ought gratefully to reflect on the wondrous privileges which have been granted to ourselves. These, and similar reflections or inferences, spontaneously present themselves to every mind, on the passage being read.

Now, our inferences from the Bible ought to be equally unforced. They should not be pressed into or out of a passage, but should grow from it as naturally as fruit from the boughs of a tree. Thus, when Paul and Silas prayed and sung praises to God in the prison, we are taught, by their experience, that religion is capable of producing peace of mind in the most adverse circumstances. The saying of Judah, "We are verily guilty concerning our brother," teaches us the power of a guilty conscience. The destruction of the cities of the plain teaches us that God is just. All these lessons are truths already existing in their respective narratives, which the teacher has only to uncover to view.

But some teachers, as we have seen, desert this mode of dednction as too meagre in its results. With them, lessons are "counted, not weighed," and are estimated by their ingenuity rather than by their truth. Every passage is tortured for lessons; and the more far-fetched the lessons are, like certain curiosities, they are reckoned the more valuable.

Besides the error above mentioned, there are two others akin to it;—first, an excessive spiritualising of Scripture; and, secondly, an over-fondness for typology.

Those who spiritualise the Bible, when they have a historical passage, will pass quickly over the narrative and its lessons, to convert the narrative into a sort of parable.

Example—Luke xviii. 35-43.—Here there would be taught as the principal lessons—(1.) The natural blindness of the human heart. (2.) The cry of an awakened sinner—"Jesus, have mercy on me." (3.) The opposition of the world—"They rebuked him." (4.) Christ's invitation—"He commanded him to be brought." (5.) Christ's mercy—"He said unto him, Receive thy sight." (Lastly,) His example—"He followed him, glorifying God." That such teaching may be very useful, and that several parts of this narrative may be advantageously used as an illustration of certain steps in the salvation of a sinner, is not to be questioned. But nothing can be more evident than that the above six lessons are not the natural growth of the passage; and that, in teaching them, we are not teaching what it was written for. Let us always endeavour to ascertain what the Spirit of God designed us to teach.

The other, error consists in an over-fondness for types. Every incident in the Old Testament is regarded as a type by the lovers of typology. The bondage of Egypt, the passage of the Red Sea, the forty years' sojourn in the wilderness, the minutest fringe or embroidery on the garments of the priests, are reckoned types. Now, we are not going to enter upon an examination of this difficult subject at present. That there are types, is undoubted ; we would only caution teachers to be sure, before fixing on any observance or event as a type, that they clearly know the meaning they attach to the word type, and that they have good evidence for their belief.

In concluding these observations on inferences, we would remind teachers that they should consider the wants and ages of their children; for a lesson useful to an adult may be thrown away upon a child. Thus, Paul replied to the magistrate by whom he had been imprisoned —"They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay, verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out." From this we may point out to a man how, in becoming a Christian, he does not lose the privilege of defending his rights as a citizen; but any such reflection addressed to children would be entirely wasted.

We have seen that, in teaching Bible history, the great subjects which ought to engage the mind of a class, are the story and its moral. It may be asked, What proportion ought to be given to each? Our only answer is, follow the example of Scripture. The teacher should be like a microscope, through which, when a tiny little flower is examined, the beauties seen by the naked eye are enlarged, .and at the same time many more, before invisible, are brought to view.

A teacher is sometimes in danger of attempting to teach too many lessons from an interesting narrative. He is cumbered with his wealth, and, in his anxiety to bring out all the riches of the passage, he fails to leave a distinct impression of any one truth. On the other hand, he is also sometimes in danger of dwelling too long on a lesson. Wherever a narrative is fully detailed, as is the case with the history of Joseph, and the sacrifice of Elijah on Mount Carmel, a whole chapter may be taken at a time. The remark applies to any passage of Scripture. The sentence, "Quench not the Spirit," may be sufficient for a good lesson; but the description of Christian love in 1 Cor. xiii. 4-7, being so much expanded already, must be taught more summarily.

Some teachers find it difficult to know how and when to introduce the doctrine of salvation by Christ into an Old Testament narrative. They feel it should be done, and therefore append at the close a few statements on the subject, which may have little to do with the previous instructions. Cecil remarks on this practice, "If a preacher cannot so feel and think as to bend all subjects naturally and gracefully to Christ, he must seek his remedy in selecting such as are more evangelical."

Perhaps a remedy may be found, however, in an easier way. If we only recollect that all good examples are for imitation, all bad examples for warning, all precepts to be obeyed, and all promises to be received, and that no good example can be fully imitated, no precept heartily obeyed, and no promises cordially received, without the help of Christ, we shall see that there is a direct road to the cross of Jesus from all parts of the Bible, the Old Testament as well as the New; and thus, whatever our lesson be, Ave shall teach that the road to heaven lies past the cross of Christ, and that to it we must come for direction through all the rest of the way.


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