When is the last time that you read the Bible just to read it? You weren’t trying to prepare for a lesson or study for a Bible class. You weren’t even trying to adamantly make it through a Bible reading plan. You were just reading because you wanted to. Better yet, when is the last time you gathered with friends to read the scriptures together? Not to talk about theology or debate various doctrines, but just to read? Or perhaps an even better question: When did you last participate in a church gathering where the Bible was simply read aloud and rejoiced in?
Now, I’m not asking these questions to make anyone feel guilty or to call anyone out. I’m simply trying to point out how easily even the most spiritual person can begin to lack the influence of the scriptures. Deeper yet, how our hearts can grow cold and cease to love the word of God. Even churches gather, not primarily to enjoy the word of God, but to hear a sermon or to sing some songs.
Psalm 19 is about the revelation of God. It is actually made up of two different sections. The first (vss 1-6) is about the revelation of God in creation. The second (vss 7-14) is about the revelation of God in the scriptures. Both are necessary. For the person who only looks down into the Bible in their lap will never look up into the heavens in praise or around at other people to love and serve. And the person who is only looking up and around risks their mind flying away only to get lost in the hurricane of contemporary philosophies and will never look down at the ground on which he stands or bow in reverence to a holy God.
There is plenty of wonderful poetry exalting nature. Some of my favorite poets include Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau from the Romantic Era who wrote about the beauties of the world. But how much poetry exists that exalts the revelation of God through the Scriptures? Psalm 19 is one of these rare and beautiful poetic outbursts of a heart that has encountered God through the scriptures.
The word of God revives the soul, rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes. It is more desirable than fine gold and sweeter than the sweetest honey. Do you believe these things about the scriptures? And not just in your head. Does your heart believe this?
Luke 4 and Nehemiah 8 both give us a glimpse into public scripture readings. These are a regular part of the ancient world. For a couple of reasons: (1) because there weren’t just bibles laying around for people to read and (2) because, even if there were, people couldn’t read. Throughout all of history it has been a regular practice for the people of God to come together to read and rejoice in the word of God. Now, I want to point out two things from these scriptures:
To the one who reads: Notice in Luke where it says that Jesus “came to Nazareth and, as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day and he stood up to read.” (Luke 4:16) Jesus had a custom of going to synagogue. He regularly joined in and participated with the gathering of the people. And part of that regular participation was the reading of the scroll. For those of you who have the wonderful blessing of leading other people in worship gatherings, I implore you to make it a custom to read from the word of God with those people! Perhaps you spend every day poring over the scriptures. Your people will never come to love it if you only talk about it with them. You must read it with them! Please, make this a regular custom in your gatherings!
To the one who hears: Notice in Nehemiah how the people respond to the reading of the word. It says that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:3) When the word of God is read let your ears be attentive. Listen with all of your being. So often, it seems that times of reading the word of God are times to simply zone out and lose focus. I think that is more than just attention deficit. I think it is proof that there is an enemy who does not want us to hear the voice of God or to know his words. This chapter also says that after the reading was completed that “all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” (Nehemiah 8:6) When the word of God is read let yourself response. Respond with all of your being! Do not just mentally agree or give a little “Amen!” or “It’s good!” Lift your hands, bow your head, worship the Lord. For he has spoken! The passage in Nehemiah goes on to say that “the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:9) Let the word of God move you so much that it rocks your core, that it moves your soul!
“Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:13)
I want to close this little reflection with a look at this simple exhortation from Paul to Timothy, a leader at the church in Ephesus. Paul plainly says, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” He doesn’t only tell Timothy to have really great “quiet times” or to just pray really hard, although that behind-the-scenes stuff is essential. He says for Timothy to make a habit of reading the scriptures before the people. To the people. With the people.
And, so that no one misunderstands me, I want to affirm my wonderful support of preaching and teaching. I do not mean to downplay or cast aside the preaching of the gospel or the exhortation of the church. I love that and hope for it to be a part of my regular vocation one day. I only mean to point out that Paul says exhortation and teaching after the public reading of Scripture. Even in the other readings of today there was teaching. For Jesus gave an interpretation of Isaiah, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) And in Nehemiah it says that there were men who “helped the people to understand the Law…and gave sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:7-8) Interpreting and teaching the scriptures is key to the reading of it! It simply stands that opportunities to teach came in the context of public readings, rather than opportunities to read coming from public teaching. We are called to begin with the scriptures and let them shape us and move us.
May we be a people who join the psalmist:
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.