The Public Reading of the Scriptures

Paul exhorts Timothy, “…devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture…” (1 Tim.4:13).  This practice has roots in the Old Testament.  Just prior to Israel’s crossing the Jordon River to begin conquest of the land promised to the descendants of Abraham, Moses commanded that the Law of God be publicly read once every 7 years “in the year for canceling debts [Dt.15], during the Feast of Tabernacles” to all in Israel “- men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns.” (Dt.31:10-12)  Some churches have applied this as a regular practice in worship services.  I attended one church that had adopted this practice and was in the book of Job, out of which they read a portion without comment.  That was strange because the passage consisted of part of Elephaz’s criticism of Job and it was against Elephaz and his friends that the Lord expressed anger “because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has.”  (Job.42:7)

Paul’s exhortation to Timothy goes further, “…devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”  (1 Tim.4:13)  This was understood and practiced in accompaniment of the public reading.  Neh.8 is an account of such an event.  The Levites…instructed the people [“all who were able to understand,” v.3] in the law…They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read (v.7-8).  In addition, “the heads of all the families along with the priests and the Levites gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law (v.13)).”

This practice was continued in New Testament times.  Jesus read a portion of Isaiah in the synagogue upon which He commented as part of His demonstration of His true identity (Lk.4:14-37).  Paul did something similar (Acts 13:13-52).  Paul also instructed the out-loud reading of His letters as they were passed around the churches (Col.4:16; 1 Thes.5:27).

I attended another church that had adopted this practice.  A designated reader first gave a summary of the passage with comments and then read an entire chapter from John.   It seems strange to me that Christians take things like this and make a practice out of it without (apparently) thinking it through.  Since for the most part, the people referred to in the above historical survey didn’t have personal copies of the Scriptures, so even if they could read Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, they had no Bible broken down into chapters and verses to read.  Hence, the public reading was necessary and appropriate.  Today, everyone in the US has access to all manor of translations, both written and recorded.  Most of us can follow such an oral reading as long as it tells a story or gives a sequence of events (historical account).  But as soon as the reading hits the doctrinal sections, few of us can stay with it for more than 3 sentences.  One person commented to me that they have had 3 Bibles and haven’t been able to read any of them.  They try every now and then and always end up quitting after a short time.

I wonder what you would find about reading the Bible if you could get an accurate account from people attending your church.  Why not design a survey [not as simple as you’d think] and find out?  Some people like the worship meetings, teaching, perhaps small group discussions, and maybe certain activities, yet they don’t really read the Bible or know how to.  There are a number of books on this subject [God’s Big Picture by Vaughn Roberts is a good one].  Among those who do read it regularly, how many study it?  Is it serving people who do not regularly read the Word and meditate on the Scripture themselves to have someone read it to them?  Can it be that none of these - handing people the Bible, reading it to them, explaining it to them, or even giving them applications is the best way to educate Christians?  Remember the old adage that says “Give a man a bag of grain and he will eat for a month - teach him to grow it as well, and he will be able to feed his family from then on.”  [see Living Between the Lines…What to Teach; War…Reading and Discussing Scripture]


Sunday the scripture reading was Ester 8.  Because of absentees, visitors, and the presence of young people and people less familiar with the story, it would have been more informative to begin with a short summary of events leading up to chap.8.  Chap.8 could then have been summarized in more detail.  The reading of every word isn't necessary in this type of book and summarizing would be more meaningful for the younger people at least.  The principle is, when there is a story to tell [narrative], shorten it and tell it - don't read it!

Actually, one can do something similar with doctrinal sections as well.  Really, there doesn't seem to be any class of Scripture where this kind of approach would not be helpful.  Summarizing or giving a short history is a means of gathering the class [getting them on the same page and bringing them up to speed] and setting the stage for the instruction at hand.

Further I suggest the following alternative to reading through the Bible as a regular part of the worship service.  It is more beneficial in the long run to teach people how to reason through the texts, figure them out, and consider the lessons in terms of their own lives.  Ultimately, each of us wrestles with God and faces trials to his faith inside of his own head and heart.  For this very lonely struggle one must be honest in his self-assessment, sure of what he knows, and convinced that the way he takes it is true.

To this end [training people to mine the truths of the Bible for themselves, distinguish truth and error, and face that truth], it might prove better practice to work through passages from categories like those below.  This is a form and method of clarification.  Admittedly, it involves a brief lesson before the sermon [which tends to happen with the Scripture reading as well] and may be more appropriately dealt with in Sunday school or other meetings.  TIPS - don’t read long passages or other statements – give background, summarize, read short excerpts, tell the story and quit.

·        Using cross references, take people through the process of looking up OT passages, occurrences, or situations cited in the NT to explore why it is referred to and what it is getting at.  [There are a lot of passages like this.]  Example – Rom.11:1-5 << 1 Ki.19:1-18.  Rom.10 ends by giving a good reason for God to reject Israel as a whole.  Nevertheless Paul makes the case that God hasn’t rejected the Hebrews as a people, after all Paul himself is a Jew whom God has saved.  In support of his argument, he refers to the great prophet Elijah who served the Lord during the reign of the wicked king Ahab over Israel.  Elijah prayed and the Lord stopped the rain for over 3 years and brought famine on the land.  It was Elijah who cried to the Lord for the widow’s dead child and God restored his life.  He stood against 450 prophets of Baal and had them executed.  He prayed again and the Lord sent rain on the land.  But when Ahab’s wicked wife, Jezebel, heard of the execution, she threatened Elijah, and he fled.  Out of his disgust with himself for being afraid and thinking that his zeal for the Lord had accomplished nothing – out of his exhaustion, discouragement, and depression, Elijah asked God to take his life.  Instead, the Lord sent an angel to strengthen him in his flight.

God exhibited His presence to Elijah not in the mighty display of judgment against Israel (powerful wind, earthquake, or fire) as Elijah’s indictment called for, but in a most unspectacular way.  Elijah in the bitterness of his heart has been blind to God’s unseen work - His intent to demonstrate His sovereign power over people and nations, but in His own way and time.  Paul’s point in referencing Elijah is that God is at work regardless of how things appear.  Just as it seemed to Elijah that he was the only one in Israel who remained faithful to God, so it looked like God had abandoned His ancestral people in Paul’s day.  Not so, we don’t know what God is doing because His ways are secret, quiet.  He reserved to Himself a loyal remnant in Elijah’s day and He was saving a remnant in Paul’s.  As we find ourselves feeling dissatisfied like Elijah, let us remember that God is good and faithful to His promises.  We like Elijah need to persevere in trusting our heavenly Father.  Since we don’t know the details of God’s working, let us resist prejudging Him and others as the events and circumstances of life unfold.  [This can be applied more specifically to other areas such as witnessing.]  [see Means of Grace & Spir Growth Plan]

·        Scripture doesn’t reveal everything.  In fact often what we are interested in discussing is exactly the point where it is silent and so we speculate.  That is ok as long as we don’t miss what God is emphasizing by what He does reveal.  In our Sunday school, we were interacting around the topic, how were people in OT times [before Christ's death] saved?  The discussion naturally moved to what people knew at the time.  Someone brought up the fact that Abel and Cain knew to offer sacrifices and brought them according to this knowledge.  How explicit was their knowledge?  Did both brothers have the same understanding?  Did Cain know what to offer and deliberately bring something else?  This seems unlikely.  We simply don’t have much information to go on.

What God does address in Gen.4 is Cain’s reaction to having his offering rejected while his brother’s was accepted.  God reasoned with Cain, talking to him about what was happening and warned him of the consequences.  Cain was being given a chance to correct his error and turn from the path of anger he had begun [see Short Course: Temptation].  Since this is the part that Scripture discusses, it is what God intends for us to contemplate.

·        Work through paradoxes. – Obtained the promise(s)…or not, Heb.6:13-15 >< Heb.11:13 & 39

·        Tackle places where the NT actually changes the language of the OT. - Rom.4:13 >> The Israel of God p.25-26

·        Clarify metaphors and other linguistic devices. – David referring to Christ the son of David (Ezek.34; 37:15-28)

·        Explore statements that seem to contradict orthodox Christian doctrine. – striving to enter that rest, Heb.4:11a <> salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

·        Consider incidents and teachings that may have been tied to a particular cultural context. – the covering of the head in worship, 1 Cor.11:3-16

·        It confuses people to use the same linguistic expressions to refer to things in opposition to their Scriptural usage.  These are usually phrases picked out of Bible passages without much thought.  It is a good exercise to correct common misconceptions and muddy thinking exhibited by misuse of biblical phrases such as This is the day that the lord has made… (Ps.118:24) [see THE KEY TO THE BIBLE, Instructor 4 of 6,]; or …the truth will set you free” (Jn.8:32) [see, SHORT COURSE, Truth - Instr.,].

I once asked an elder who used the phrase line upon line several times during a small group meeting, “my impression is that you meant something positive by it, is that true”?  He responded,

Line upon Line Precept upon Precept is an exegetical methodology taught to me by a former pastor in the early eighties soon after I was saved.  It presupposed that proper hermeneutics begins with solid exegesis and that the best way to learn the principles of the bible is in context of the whole counsel of God.

In actuality this phrase is from Isa.28:10 & 13 where God’s announcement of judgment upon Samaria (referred to as that wreath, the pride of Ephraim’s drunkards, v.1, 3), Ephraim (another name for the northern kingdom of Israel), and Jerusalem (capital of the southern kingdom) through the prophet Isaiah is met with disdain by their leaders.

A Mormon friend explained, that the Lord was chastising the people and saying that after feeding them line upon line and precept upon precept they still went astray.  That is how we learn everything and He did his best to teach them [meaning this was positive - the standard method employed].  Another usage of the phrase is from 2Nepi 28:30.

30 For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.

Beginning at Isa.28:1 six woes are pronounced on the occasion of the northern kingdom’s conquest in 722 BC by the Assyrians.  The religious leaders mock Isaiah’s message [scoffers who rule this people, v.14] by saying, who does he think he is talking to, little children just weaned from mommy’s breast? [v.9 NIV]  For he speaks to us as to children, Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there [a very tedious way to achieve conformity and compliance without explanation, v.10].  Thus will God speak to his recalcitrant people, as to children and not adults, by the foreign lips and strange tongues of their oppressors [v.11-13 paraphrased].

In other words Ephraim’s drunkards (leaders, priests, and prophets - 28:1, 3, 7) who had brought God’s judgment upon themselves through abuse of their office were acting like foolish irresponsible children claiming the prophet was speaking nonsense, so the Assyrians (God’s instrument of judgment referred to their king, the one who is powerful and strong, v.2) will become their teachers and the word of the Lord will remain nonsense to them.  This passage reflects a typical irony of God’s judgment - the mocking response of the religious leaders toward Isaiah will be turned back upon them.  [Of course how clearly this is brought out depends upon the translation.]  There is no indication here of a normal method of teaching, exegesis, or any positive use of this language.

·        Examine explanatory notes and articles. – naturalistic speculative notes in Zondervan NIV at Ex.7:17; 8:3, 13 >> Covenant theological article in the ESV Reformation Study Bible, God’s Covenant of Grace; Infant Baptism >> Dispensational note at Rev.20:2 NASV The Ryrie Study Bible.

·        USAGE LESSON: constructions such as "the reason why…," the "reasonis because…," and "the reason whyis because…” are redundant [or tautological].  These combinations occur in older literature and have recently become popular and accepted even by careful writers.  Better usage would eliminate all but one of these words and may call for restructuring.  Substitute “that” for “why”; and instead of beginning the statement with the reason - “The reason he fell is because he was careless,” say “He fell because he was careless,” making the sentence concise and eliminating a repetition of the verb “be” [is, was].

Rom.15:22 in the ESV states, "This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you."  Actually, the ESV is copying the RSV from which it is derived.  The NIV translates it "This is why" and the NAS has it "For this reason."  These latter are appropriate translations of a 3 letter Greek word that used to be consistently translated "wherefore."  Jn.8:47 ESV also exhibits this poor English construction - the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.  The translators probably used why here instead of that to avoid the proximity echo of the second that.  Literally - therefore you do not hear because you are not of God.

Likewise, one often cannot avoid the awkwardness that comes by beginning statements [not questions] with “What” – “What I meant was that he skipped school,” corrects to “I meant that he skipped school.”  What he did then was jump into the mud, corrects to “He then jumped into the mud.”

·        I have a friend who doesn’t use the word “me” in sentences.  Here are 3 examples from his last sermon:

A.   He is speaking to you and I.

B.   God’s word comes to you and I.

C.   God has chosen you and I to reflect Him.

There are 3 easy tests to reveal what form [case] of personal pronouns should be used, nominative (I, he or she; we, they) or objective (me, him or her; us, them) [you and it do not change forms].

1.    Leave out the “you.”  God’s word comes to I.  The pronoun is an object so it should be in the objective case, “me.”

2.    Reverse the order of the pronouns.  God’s word comes to I and you.  The order of me and you is unimportant.

3.    Make it plural.  God’s word comes to we.  The plural for you and I in the nominative case is “we.”  The plural for you and me in the objective case is “us.”

Personal pronouns used as the subject are in the nominative case.  Apply the above tests to the sentence, Me and her practice gymnastics.  In this case, the order is important.  She and I practice gymnastics.

·        What is the distinction between a cause and a reason?

·        Etc.