Eccles. 12:11-12 – The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.  My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
I went to a Pastors’ Conference last week and it was one of, if not the, most valuable and useful conferences dedicated to pastoral work that I have ever attended. But this is not about the sessions. This is about the books.
We were given great books. I hope to be able to get all of them read. When we arrived we were given a bag with some CDs of sermons and lectures and one of songs in it. There were also a couple of magazines and a stack of old Tabletalk devotional books. There may have been a couple of other things that now escape my memory. Later that day we were given, simply because we had the blue “I am a registered attender” tag displayed around our necks, three books. The next day we were given three more and the final day, because we filled out the conference evaluation questionnaire, we were given four (I think) more. Ten books.
I had been away the week before and went book shopping at a mega church book room and spent over $140.00 (US) on books, compliments of the church I pastor. Some are for me. Some are for others. Some are for teaching classes at the church. In any case, I have come into a lot of books in the last two weeks. It put me in mind of the quote from Ecclesiastes 12 at the beginning of this post. Of making many books there is no end … .
Most pastors that I know have more books than they will ever read. It is one of our allowable vices. We are permitted to covet books and those who have the skill to write them (which, by the way, is not nearly as many who actually write). We buy books we will never read, cannot comprehend and much of the time will never translate into concrete action in our personal or pastoral lives. We need to guard against idolatry in regard to our books. A few years ago a Pastor from Malawi, Africa, sat in my study and gazed at the books. When I engaged him in conversation about the ones that he was interested in I offered him some. He was surprised that I could do that because he thought my library was the church’s. He couldn’t imagine that a pastor could own so many books.
For several months this year a popular blog had some of the more well known evangelical leaders (to those in the young, restless, reformed camp), do video tours of their libraries and talk about their favourite book, their favourite genre of books, their reading habits, their office and so on. It was hard to watch. It was very hard to listen to. It was hard not to hear “I own a lot of books and I read a lot and I am well read and educated and a great teacher and you would be blessed if you had a lot of books like me, but if you don’t, then at least you know you can listen to me, because I do.”
Reading, for the pastor and for Christians in general, is a crucial exercise. The preacher will dry up without it. It is preaching in written form. Books teach us and it can never be said that we have arrived either intellectually or emotionally. Reading good books sharpens the mind, help us grow, and enable us to understand what is going on in the Christian world. A real good book will help us understand the Gospel better and the work of God in the world and the work of the church for God.
But the evangelical church in the west is losing its mind over books. At a conference in the US this year 7000 attenders received $400.00 worth of books each. That’s a total of $2,800,000.00, given away by publishers and others. It just seems to me that if we are so well read in good things there ought to be an observable glow around North America that can be seen from Ireland. And maybe many people are blessed by the quantity of books they read. But where is the fruit of such massive consumption?
There is a ghetto quality to our book reading. The books we love circulate in our circles and we discuss them and critique them until the next one, about three hours later, is put on the shelves, whereupon we gobble that one up and pontificate on it. Sometimes, books we hate do the circuit and we get the pleasure of trashing them in our conversations. If some are making great careers out of writing for the Christian community, then there are many more who have turned reading and debating and discussing and disagreeing with them into a career of its own.
Ecclesiastes 12 tells us that the teachings of the Good Shepherd are wise for us and need to be heeded. If a book goes beyond what He says then it ought not to be listened to. You can hardly make that assessment without some familiarity with what was said in the book. But that is great advice. The measure of any theological book is the theology it proposes and we better know our stuff if we are going to read widely. Then verse 12 says that of the making of many books there is no end. This is exponentially more true today than when Solomon wrote it. If he thought that there were too many bad books being written then, what would he write now?
We need to be discerning in our reading, but it also needs to be said that simply because a book is doctrinally sound, stylistically attractive and coming from the right theological camp, that it must be purchased. Every book produced is always accompanied by endorsements from famous theologians and pastors and writers stating that up until now the world has longed for a decent book on the subject of this one and was lacking it until this one came along. You should buy the book because you respect the one endorsing it. It is like buying a particular golf ball or running shoe because your favourite athlete says you should.
Then Ecclesiastes 12:12 says that “much study is weariness of the flesh.” How can you not love the Holy Scriptures? Of course much study is weariness to the flesh. But in the circles I travel, such an admission would be received as a promotion of ignorance and doctrinal sloppiness. “Not fit for the pastorate” if study makes you weary.
The Study Bible I use (and there is another growth industry that someone should say something about), makes a comment about verse 11 and makes comments about verses 13 and 14. But it says nothing verse 12, the verse that makes a derogatory remark about the quantity of books being made and the weariness that comes from studying them. Nothing said about it. It is a glaring omission. It makes one wonder why nothing was said about it, except that the publisher of my study Bible publishes an awful lot of other material that they want you to buy.
I think that there ought to be a one year moratorium on the writing and publishing of evangelical books. Give us a chance to catch up. If the publishers and others can afford to donate over two million dollars worth of books several times a year at conferences, then they can afford to rob us of the privilege of reading the great Christian classics that are due to come out every few days. But they are not going to do that. There is too much at stake. But you can do it. Don’t buy a book for a year. Catch up. Read the classics of Christianity that have been around for centuries, and in some cases, millenia. Read what was written so long ago and has proven its worth through the test of time and has much to say, even in our age.
Read a good book. Read a good book about the great God we serve, the church that He loves, the world that He sends us into. Read a good novel, a good biography a good devotional. Read what will convict you, stir you, make you cry, make you repent, make you a better person. Read great books that aren’t Christian.
But allow yourself to get weary over other things than just the reading of many books. Get weary playing with your kids and witnessing in the market place. Get weary from praying and studying the Book and not just books. Get weary from pastoring hurting, ill, uneducated, ignorant believers who need to do better and in most cases, want to do better. Cultivate a weariness from other things that give you great joy and produce great fruit in your life and those you interact with. Use the books you read to make you a better liver of life, a better servant of Christ. Read what stirs you and makes you think.
There is another verse that comes to mind when I think of the quantity of books that the western church is producing and purchasing and possibly consuming.
Luke 12:47-48 – And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
We have been given very much. And with all that we have been given we should know our Master’s will by now. What in the world have we done with it? What will we do from now on?
Well, I have to go. I’m behind in my reading.