Attentive to the Book
For as long as I can remember the congregation that I’ve grown up in and continue to worship with has a scripture reading in our collective worship. Typically we begin with some general announcements and then begin the service with that scripture reading. Sometimes the passage that is read is directly tied to the lesson that is later presented. Sometimes the passages that are read are what I’d call classic anthem passages.
It wasn’t too long ago that it hit me that I haven’t really been taking that part of our collective worship seriously. I then asked myself some questions: “Why do we have scripture reading as part of the collective worship?” “What purpose is it intended to serve in leading our minds in worship to God?” “Is it currently fulfilling or accomplishing that purpose?” These are all questions that admittedly I couldn’t answer immediately. They took some thought. For some of those questions I wasn’t satisfied with the answer.
In Nehemiah 8 something takes place that I think is a great encouragement and reminder of what our view should be toward God’s word. It’s a reminder of the importance of spending time reading from God’s word whether we are in a collective assembly or at home by ourselves. It’s a reminder of where our faith truly comes from and where any true spiritual revival, personal or collective, begins.
The temple has been rebuilt and the walls and gates just recently built. The remnant that had returned came back with great ambitions and goals but had faced quite a bit of setbacks, some external and some internal. What’s interesting to me is that it’s not Ezra nor is it Nehemiah that invites all the people into the square but rather the people tell Ezra to “bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel.”(v.1) The latter part of v.3 says that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of Law.” They’d wind up staying in that square over half the day listening to it read and also the Levites who came around and explained it so that they fully understood it.
Not only do they want to listen to it and understand it they responded to it. The response was an emotional one. They had been brought face to face with their sin. Nehemiah 8:9 says “For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” Nehemiah and Ezra strive to calm the people down and encourage them to rejoice rather than mourn because of their renewed relationship with the Lord. Not only did they begin to greatly rejoice because of the message but they also put into action their obedience of what they had learned. For example in v.13-18 they realized there was a feast that they hadn’t been keeping. With joyous hearts they assembled booths and kept that feast “according to the rule” (v.18b).
Nehemiah 8 serves as a great reminder to how we should value and respect the God’s word. They desired to hear it and understand it. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-3) Nehemiah 8:5 indicates the respect and reverence that they had for God’s word when it says “as he opened it all the people stood.” They obviously allowed it to penetrate into their hearts as their response was a natural response. They were moved not only intellectually but emotionally by God’s word.
Now I realize that today it’s not necessary for everyone to stand every time God’s word is opened nor is it necessary to lift our hands like they did in v.6 (although let’s not criticize or judge those who feel that is appropriate). But…when’s the last time reading God’s word produced a response? A tear in your eye, a smile on your face, a moment of laughter, hands lifted to the sky in amazement? For a long time, yearly bible reading plans have been a big thing. The goal is to read through the bible in a year. I get it, we like to accomplish things and like other books the goal is to read the entire thing right?
I do not want to take away from that and if you love to do that and it is helpful for you to read through it within the year by all means do that because it encourages you. But recently my advice to those who ask about personal bible reading, where they should start, do I have a good yearly program to read the entire bible, etc., my advice has been don’t. It’s been my experience and opinion that most read through the bible in a year and admit they can’t remember most of what they’ve read and what they do remember don’t really understand. If we do not understand what we’re reading then it’s not fulfilling its purpose. Personally I’d rather spend a week on one text or a few chapters and walk away with a true appreciation rather than just being able to say that I’ve read it.
In our collective assemblies…I think we’d all agree that in everything we do we must do It purposefully and with respect and reverence. I realize that if it’s going to be effective then a lot of it comes down to each of us personally in how we personally pay attention and where our hearts are at. With that said I think we can also strive to give it better attention as church leaders in the emphasis we put on it and for those who read the public scripture, the value we put on it as we lead the minds of those gathered for worship. Our congregation has reviewed this and is striving to make this more effective. How we go about that may be different from the way your congregation may. But let’s all be purposeful about sharing and reading God’s word and allow its power to do what it does best, and that is to change lives completely.