A couple of years before Lincoln became President, a budding young scientist entered the laboratory of Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz. The student with an appetite to learn was Samuel Scudder. He was a young twenty-something who wanted to be a zoologist.
"When do you wish to begin?" the professor asked.
"Now," said Scudder.
"Very well," came the professor's happy reply.
Professor Agassiz reached up to a shelf and took down a huge jar of specimens. Pulling out a fish, he laid it on a tin tray and said:
"Take this fish and look at it . . . by and by I will ask you what you have seen."
With the fish positioned and his instructions dispensed, the professor left the room. Scudder examined the fish. He looked and looked some more. "In ten minutes," he said, "I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the professor." The professor, however, had left the museum.
Scudder searched for his new mentor, but his efforts to find him proved fruitless. He returned to the laboratory and his "mute companion." Time crawled . . . thirty minutes, then an hour, then another hour. Finally, Scudder stopped waiting and started looking. He turned the fish over and around. He looked at it from the front and back, above and beneath, sideways and at three-quarters angle. He looked until he could look no more, and still no professor.
Scudder went to lunch. Returning from lunch he learned that Professor Agassiz would not return for several hours. The young man was dejected, but he looked some more. "I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales. . . ."
Then he had a flash of insight, "Draw the fish!" As he did he made new discoveries, seeing features he had not noticed earlier.
Just then the professor returned. Agassiz complemented Samuel's use of the pencil. "That is right, a pencil is one of the best of eyes." Then he asked about the fish:
"Well, what is it like?"
Samuel carefully reviewed and described the parts he saw. When he finished, Professor Agassiz waited as if he was expecting more. In a disappointing voice he said,
"You have not looked very carefully . . . look again, look again!"
With that rebuke the professor left. Scudder said, "I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the professor's criticism had been."
Evening came. The fish went back to its jar. The professor would hear of Sudder's findings in the morning. When the new day arrived, Samuel Scudder gave a verbal chronicle of his observations. This time his sightings were met with more pleasure from Agassiz. The student, no doubt relieved, asked: "What should I do next?" His heart sank when he heard the words:
"Oh, look at your fish!"
Once again Agassiz wandered off and Scudder went back to looking. This monotonous routine continued for three days. The student, without any aid but his eyes, continued to examine his fish. "'Look, look, look,' was his repeated injunction."
This is day three of our journey. You may be feeling like Samuel Scudder: "I've seen all that I can see." Let me play the part of Professor Agassiz and encourage you to look, look, look. An essential part of reading your Bible is learning to look!
How to see what others miss:
Observation (the "O" is SOAP) is essential for discovering the wisdom of God. King Solomon must have sounded like Professor Agassiz to his listeners. Solomon writes, "Seek it like silver; search for it like hidden treasure" Proverbs 2:4 (CEB).
Here are three ways to see (observe) what others miss:
- Begin with prayer.
The Bible is a supernatural book. It takes supernatural help to understand it. So ask God! This is why the Psalmist prays the prayer we should pray every time we read God's word: "Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from your word."
- Ask questions.
We see more when we ask questions of the passage. Ask context questions: The who, what, when, where, and why. Ask the structural questions: Are there repeated words and phrases? Are there questions asked or answers given? Are their figures of speech? Is there cause and effect? Ask the theology questions: Is there something new about God I need to learn? Is there a sin to confess? Is there a truth I need to ponder?
- Read with a pencil.
In the same way Scudder saw more by drawing, you may see more by underlining, circling, or highlighting key words and phrases as you read.
Take your time. People who make discoveries are like Thomas Edison, they are diligent and they are patient. You don't stumble onto gold, you search for it. That takes time.
The S.O.A.P. Bible-reading plan
Today we've highlighted the importance of observation. So let's get to it. Remember, the heart of our 5-day journey is learning to use the SOAP method for reading our bibles. SOAP is an acronym that stands for Scripture, Observation, Application, and Prayer.
S is for Scripture
Open your Bible to your daily reading plan (more on that Thursday). Take the time to read the passage and let God speak to you. When you are done, look for one verse that particularly spoke to you. Write it down.
O is for Observation
Observation is looking closely to discover things you did not previously see. What is God showing you in this scripture? Ask the Holy Spirit to "open your eyes," to teach you and reveal Jesus to you. Paraphrase the verse. Write it down in your own words.
A is for Application
Personalize what you have read, by asking yourself how it applies to your life right now. Perhaps it is instruction, encouragement, revelation of a new promise, or corrections for a particular area of your life. Write how this Scripture can apply to you today.
P is for Prayer
This can be as simple as asking God to help you use this Scripture, or it may be asking God for greater insight on what He is revealing to you. Write out your prayer. Remember, prayer is a two-way conversation. Take time to listen to what God has to say!
Your SOAP for today:
Read the passage below. It is about seriously searching for the wisdom of God. Once you read the passage, follow the SOAP plan. We know you don't have all day, but try devoting fifteen minutes. Today, I'm praying that God helps you strike gold.
1 My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
2 making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
3 yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
4 if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
5 then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
6 For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
7 he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
8 guarding the paths of justice
and watching over the way of his saints.
9 Then you will understand righteousness and justice
and equity, every good path;
10 for wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;
11 discretion will watch over you,
understanding will guard you,
12 delivering you from the way of evil,
from men of perverted speech,
Proverbs 2:1-12 ESV
Scripture: What is the one verse that God used to speak to you?
Observation: What did you discover in this verse? What is God saying to you? Try writing out the verse in your own words (paraphrase it).
Application: How does this apply to your life right now?
Prayer: Take time to ask the Lord to help you do what he revealed to you.
A closing thought
You've been on the journey for three days. Way to go! The Psalmist said, "God, your words are sweeter than honey" (Psalm 119:103). May you find that sweet, sweet, satisfaction as you read.
Remember our goal this week:
Tomorrow we will talk about application, the "A" of SOAP. I am going to share another one of my favorite stories. It is so good! I also want to share a tip that will help you remember and do what you read. Until then, stay on the journey.
- Samuel Scudder's story, "Look at Your Fish," first appeared in Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading (April 4, 1874) under the title, "In the Laboratory With Agassiz," by "A Former Pupil." You can find the complete story by clicking here.
- Some of the material from "Ask Questions" came from Creative Bible Study by Richards and Bredfeldt.