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On Your Marks

Used Bibles

In an assorted stack of well-used Bibles, nearly every copy will bear marks of some kind. Under certain words, there is single- or double-underlining. Select verses are awash in the yellow or pink or green of an eager highlighter. And in some margins, notes and comments are written in pen or pencil.

These are Bibles that have sat on a shelf in the kitchen, in a desk at school, at someone’s bedside, in a pew at church, or somewhere else entirely. Wherever their original home, these are Bibles that have been used. And they bear signs of this use, not just in silent creases or rips but in the added words, marks and lines that draw attention to a verse or passage that was special in some way to the person who once owned the Bible you now hold in your hands.

Questions and Speculation

Of course, it’s impossible to know for certain why a verse has been marked. The owner of a used Bible usually doesn’t know the previous owner and his circumstances. Yet about these marked verses and words one might make a few tentative observations, or at least ask a few thought-provoking questions.

In one almost brand-new NIV (New International Version), only three passages are found marked – three “classics,” if you will. Marked was a small portion of 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter on the spiritual gift of love, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast…” Also underlined was the fruit of the Spirit passage from Galatians 5. Highlighted likewise was the powerful verse from Philippians 4, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

These are the passages that practically every Christian knows, and that many new Christians excitedly “discover” early on when reading and studying the Bible. And indeed, this particular edition of the NIV was an economy-version, printed on cheap paper, with cheap binding – suited for handing out for free to a seeker or to a new Christian. One can’t help but hope the previous reader made it farther into the Bible than just these three verses, beautiful as they are.

Similarly in a very fresh-looking RSV (Revised Standard Version), one of just a few passages discovered as highlighted was Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works…” If you could mark only one passage in the Bible, what better passage than this?

Yet the same question as before arises when one thinks of how little has been marked. The previous owner found a good passage, but did he only read for a short time, and then discard what he had? Somewhat mysteriously, in a nearly pristine NEB (New English Bible), one of the few texts highlighted was John 6:66, “From that time on, many of his disciples withdrew and no longer went about with him.”

Looking at these practically brand-new Bibles, one likes to ponder other possible and happier reasons that a person might get rid of his perfectly good copy of God’s Word. Was it time to read a better translation? One with more study notes?

They say that the Bible is the most widely printed book in the world, and also the most widely stolen book – go to three different second hand stores, and you might conclude that it’s also the most widely donated book in the world: there’s often a sagging shelf filled completely with now ownerless Bibles. And maybe it is better to give away a Bible if you don’t need that particular copy anymore, rather than hoarding God’s Word for yourself.

Marginal Matters

Lighter thoughts also emerge from a pile of Bibles. In a KJV (King James Version) from the late 1800s, several texts are underlined. Beside one passage, in addition to its underlining, in the margin is a finely drawn little hand with its index finger extended and pointing to the text. For your interest, the text that is pointed out is: “Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days” (Ecc 11:1). Judging from the date of the Bible, and the faintness of the pencil marks, this artistic form of “highlighting” is from a time long before the days of the rather less subtle neon highlighters.

Another, more recently-printed KJV gives evidence that a previous reader was familiar with some Bible folklore. At Psalm 46 in this Bible, the 46th word from the beginning of the Psalm is “shake,” and it is highlighted in pink. The 46th word from the end of the Psalm is “spear,” which is also pinked. Put the two words together and what do you get? “Shake-spear.” This bit of KJV trivia has been taken by some as sure proof for the theory that William Shakespeare lent his high literary style to the writing of the sublime KJV. Though the history books don’t say he had a role, here, some will still insist, is Shakespeare’s hidden “signature” on a work to which he contributed. To some this surreptitious “signature” is conclusive for the case of the Bard’s involvement, for when the KJV was completed (1611), Shakespeare’s age was… 46.

One NIV Study Bible (1984) bore many signs of frequent use. This was heartening on the one hand, but it illustrated a sad point on the other. For looking at the stack of pages of the Bible when closed, it seems evident from the smudge marks that the New Testament was favoured far more than the Old. The gray streaks of finger-grease began promptly with Matthew, while the pages of Genesis to Malachi (three-quarters of the Bible!) were still cleanly white.

The same well-worn NIV Bible had few markings on its pages, except one found at Isaiah 59:13. There just one word was circled. Can you guess which one? Now look it up in your dictionary.

“Take your pencils…”

Once there was a minister known for different catch-lines in his sermons. Probably the most important phrase that he regularly used was this: “If you’re allowed to, please take your pencils and underline…” He wanted to have all those sitting in the pew involved during the preaching. Not simply sitting there, they had to have their Bibles open in order to follow his word-by-word explanation of the text.

As the preacher would be expounding, from time to time he’d direct attention to one very significant word, one the reader might otherwise miss. That’s when he’d tell his listeners – if they were allowed, that is – to underline the important word. He would then proceed to draw out from it rich, Scriptural truth. He “underlined” the word in his preaching, and many of his listeners would underline it in their Bibles, that they might remember the next time they read the verse.

Looking through a Bible that was opened during many sermons by the said preacher, one hears a host of words calling out for attention to their significance. The account of Jesus calling his first disciples in Luke 5 is probably familiar to most readers. Jesus there shows Peter, James and John how successful their fishing will be in the future – though they won’t be fishing for fish. Their reaction to Jesus is very instructive, for though they probably were prosperous fishermen, “They pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him” (v. 11). Underline that one word “everything,” and then think about what it means.

In 1 John 5:13-20, a small phrase occurs and recurs, a phrase so common that it might easily be overlooked. Yet pausing to highlight it, and then to reflect on it, we see the full God-given certainty of our faith and comfort in Jesus Christ: “We know... we know… we know… we know…”

A Lesson to Underline

There may be people who have principial reasons for not making marks in their Bibles, holding its very pages to be sacrosanct and not to be smudged with fallible jottings. The Bible, however, is not a book to keep on the top level of your bookshelf in the basement, nor a book to keep under glass. It is, in a sense, a “work book.” The Bible is a book to take with you, to have open often, to consult regularly, and to study carefully. If the pages of the Bible we read every day (or perhaps intend to read) are pristine and uncreased and free of finger-grease, there may be a problem.

Rather, may our Bibles be well-used and well-marked! If it helps you to remember, underline. If it helps to draw passages together, make cross-referencing notes in the margin. If it aids in understanding Scripture, write explanatory notes. If it helps you to grasp the essence of a passage, get highlighting. All such good things are done in the spirit of Psalm 119:162, “I rejoice at your word as one who finds great treasure.”


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