Robert Murray M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh on May 21, 1813. He died in Dundee on March 25, 1843—not yet 30 years of age. He had been serving as minister of St. Peter’s, Dundee, since 1836. Though so young, he was known throughout Scotland as “the saintly M’Cheyne”; nor was his remarkable influence limited to the borders of Scotland.
His friend and colleague in ministry, Andrew Bonar, collected some of M’Cheyne’s letters, messages, and miscellaneous papers, and published them, along with a brief biography, in 1844 as Robert Murray M’Cheyne: Memoir and Remains. That work has been widely recognized as one of the great spiritual classics. Within 25 years of its initial publication, it went through 116 British editions, quite apart from those in America and elsewhere. Contemporary believers interested in Christian living under the shadow of genuine revival could scarcely do better than to read and reflect on this collection of writings.
Reading the Bible
One of M’Cheyne’s abiding concerns was to encourage his people, and himself, to read the Bible. To one young man, he wrote:
You read your Bible regularly, of course; but do try and understand it, and still more to feel it. Read more parts than one at a time. For example, if you are reading Genesis, read a Psalm also; or if you are reading Matthew, read a small bit of an Epistle also. Turn the Bible into prayer. Thus, if you were reading the First Psalm, spread the Bible on the chair before you, and kneel and pray, “O Lord, give me the blessedness of the man”; “let me not stand in the counsel of the ungodly.” This is the best way of knowing the meaning of the Bible, and of learning to pray.
This was not some quaint or escapist pietism, for at the same time, M’Cheyne was himself diligent in the study of Hebrew and Greek. While a theological student, he met regularly for prayer, study, and Hebrew and Greek exercises with Andrew Bonar, Horatius Bonar, and a handful of other earnest ministers in training.
They took the Bible so seriously in their living and preaching that when the eminent Thomas Chalmers, then professor of divinity, heard of the way they approached the Bible, he is reported to have said, “I like these literalities.”
Scheme for Daily Reading
In line with his desire to foster serious Bible reading, M’Cheyne prepared a scheme for daily reading that would take readers through the New Testament and Psalms twice each year, and through the rest of the Bible once.
(1) Originally, M’Cheyne listed two columns labeled “Family” and two labeled “Secret.” He intended that, with some exceptions, the Scripture listings in the “Family” columns be read in family devotions, and those in the “Secret” columns be read privately, in personal devotions. The choice of the word “secret” was drawn from Matthew 6:6, and was in common use in M’Cheyne’s day.
(2) For those using the chart for purely private devotions, the headings are of little significance. In the last century and a half, many Christians have used this chart in just this way—as a guide and a schedule for their Bible reading.
(3) That there are two columns for “Family” readings and two columns for “Private” readings reflects M’Cheyne’s view that Christians should read from more than one part of the Bible at a time. Not only will this help you link various passages in your mind, but it will help carry you through some of the parts of the Bible that are on first inspection somewhat leaner than others (e.g., 1 Chron. 1–12).
(4) If you read through the four passages listed for each date, in the course of a year you will, as I have indicated, read through the New Testament and the Psalms twice, and the rest of the Bible once. But if for any reason you find this too fast a pace, then read the passages listed in the first two columns in the first year, and the passages listed in the last two columns in the second year.
(5) One page of this book is devoted to each day. At the top of the page is the date, followed by the references to the four readings. The first two, corresponding to the entries in the “Family” columns, are in italics; the last two, corresponding to the entries in the “Private” columns, are in Roman type. The “Comment” that occupies the rest of the page is occasionally based on some theme that links all four passages, but more commonly is based on some theme or text found in the italicized passages. In Volume Two, the second pair of passages is italicized (rather than the first), and the “Comment” is based on this second pair.
In this first volume, I have not restricted comment to passages in the first column because, in agreement with M’Cheyne, I suppose that to focus on only one part of Scripture, in this case the historical books of the Old Testament, will not be as helpful as a broader exposure to Scripture. So I have normally commented on a passage of Scripture in one of the first two columns. The first time I refer to the passage on which I am commenting, I put the reference in boldface type.
(6) In no way do these pages pretend to be a commentary as that word is commonly understood. My aim is much more modest: to provide edifying comments and reflections on some part of the designated texts, and thus to encourage readers to reflect further on the biblical passages they are reading. If there is something unusual about these comments, it is that I have tried to devote at least some of them to helping the reader keep the big picture of the Bible’s story line in mind, and to see what relevance this has for our thinking and living.
In other words, although I want the comments to be edifying, this edification is not always of a private, individual sort. My aim is to show, in however preliminary a way, that reading the whole Bible must stir thoughtful Christians to thinking theologically and holistically, as well as reverently and humbly. Volume Two includes an exhaustive index of names, subjects, and Scriptures for both volumes.
Finally, I should venture a few practical suggestions. If you must skip something, skip this book; read the Bible instead. If you fall behind, do not use that fact as an excuse for giving up the effort until next January 1. Either catch up (by an afternoon of diligent reading, perhaps some Sunday), or skip ahead to where you should be and take up there.
If your schedule allows it, set a regular time and place for your Bible reading. M’Cheyne himself wrote, “Let our secret reading prevent [i.e., precede] the dawning of the day. Let God’s voice be the first we hear in the morning.”
Whether that is the best time of the day for you is of little consequence; regular habits are of more importance. When you read, remember that God himself has declared, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2).
Learn to distill what a passage is saying, and pray it back to the Lord—whether in petition, thanksgiving, praise, or frank uncertainty. In time your Bible reading will so be linked with your praying that the two will not always be differentiable.