Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Victorian ‘prince of preachers’, pastored the same Baptist church for 38 years – and every Sunday drew thousands to hear him. His ‘Tabernacle’ at London’s Elephant Castle, had seating for 5000 people – with standing room for another 1000 – and was always full. Indeed, for guest services, he used to ask his members to stay away to make room for others! What was the secret of his ministry? How did he manage.to attract and hold such a large congregation? No doubt there are a number of reasons – but I believe that a key to his preaching was that he was a great reader. Every week Spurgeon made a point of reading half-a-dozen hard books. By the end of his life he had accumulated 12,000 books. In his house at Westwood books filled two huge rooms (the study and the library) as also a smaller room (the ‘den’, effectively another study) and a vestibule adjoining the main study. According to his wife, his library would have been bigger if he had not given so many books away. When I retired I gave many of my books away but I still thought that I had a decent collection of books: but my theological library ‘only’ consists of just over 4,000 books!
What’s more, Spurgeon did not just read theology – he read books of every kind. So in one of his lectures to his students entitled ‘The Necessity of Ministerial Progress’ he said:
“Having given precedence to the inspired writings, neglect no field of knowledge. The presence of Jesus on the earth has sanctified the realms of nature, and what he has cleansed call not common. All that your Father has made is yours, and you should learn from it. You may read a naturalist’s journal, or a traveller’s voyage,. And find profit in it. Yes, and even an old herbal, or a manual of alchemy may, like Samson’s dead lion yield you honey”.
Spurgeon, although he never had the benefit of a university education, read widely. He also read widely as far as theology was concerned. He was at home not just with his beloved Puritans, but also was conversant with the theological trends of his day. Above all he esteemed those who wrote commentaries on Scripture. I find it fascinating that he devoted one whole series of his Lectures to My Students to Commenting and Commentaries. There he has an introductory lecture entitled, ‘A Chat about Commentaries’ where he speaks about the need for preachers to engage in commentary work before they write their sermons:
“In order to be able to expound the Scripture, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt at an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”
Would that Spurgeon’s words were heeded by every minister today! Or if Spurgeon be not sufficient a guide, then what about the words found in 2 Peter 1.20: “You must understand that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation”.
As far as Spurgeon was concerned, commentaries are basic tools for a preaching ministry. Unfortunately good commentaries are expensive. Take commentaries on 1 Corinthians, for instance: even Amazon charges £54.99 for Gordon Fee’s 982 pages long magnum opus, and £43.99 for the slightly shorter (922 pages) wonderful’ commentary by Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner. Commentaries on Matthew’s Gospel are no cheaper: £49.99 for John Nolland’s commentary of 1482 pages, and £47.19 for Dick France’s commentary of 1169 pages. Nor are these the most expensive commentaries: for there are a good number of great commentaries which run to three volumes on just one Bible book! On a minister’s stipend good commentaries are indeed expensive. So at this point some advice from Spurgeon to church leaders is apposite. In a lecture entitled ‘To Workers with Slender Apparatus’ Spurgeon said:
“The deacons, whose business whose business it is ‘to serve tables … will be wise if without neglecting the Table of the Lord, or of the poor, and without diminishing the supplies of the minister’s dinner table, they give an eye to his study-table, and keep it supplied with new works and standard books in fair abundance.”
For, as Spurgeon went on to say, “supplying the preacher with food for thought” is a great investment as far as the church is concerned.
Clearly the world in which we live today is very different from the world in which Spurgeon lived. And yet I maintain that Spurgeon was right – even gifted preachers need to read, for only so can ministry be sustained.