Paul wrote to Timothy: "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching." (1 Timothy 4:13)
It's striking that in the modern evangelical world, church ministers devote themselves to preaching and teaching. We have the Bible read in our services, but principally because it's helpful to have it read before we have it preached. Maybe we have more than one reading, on the grounds that it is rightly healthy to have lots of the Bible read, not just short sections. But it can still feel that the sermon is the main course (and maybe the Lord's Supper is dessert, but that's another topic), while the reading(s) are hors d'oeuvres.
So there's a call there for church leaders to devote themselves to the public reading of Scripture. If you're the pastor / minister / incumbent of a local church, how often do you do one of the Bible readings yourself because Scripture says that it's a key part of what you're called to do?
This morning, I noticed Nehemiah 8. The temple was rebuilt in the first half of Ezra; Ezra the priest came to Jerusalem in the second half of Ezra to rebuild the people's hearts. Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and city in the first half of Nehemiah. Then, in Nehemiah 8, everyone gathers in a public square.
Why? To hear the word of God read.
Who? Men, women and all who were able to understand, which I think means children capable of following along.
But now notice carefully what happens:
2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites – Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah – instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
Ezra himself read. He read from dawn to noon - 6 hours, or thereabours.
There were Levites present, and their job was to instruct and explain. The word of God had to be made clear, the meaning given. It mattered the people understood what was being read.
But note the balance. Ezra was the main act, reading. The Levites were the support act, explaining and teaching. They were necessary, because without them what was read would not be understood. But the urgent need was for the word of God to be read in a way that was understood.
So here's a thought: How do we recover this dynamic in our church services? How do we create an atmosphere where the most anticipation and excitement comes as the Word of God is read? We really need sermons, because we must not have the Word of God read without the people understanding. But is there a danger that, in many churches, the sermon is more important than the reading, and therefore (unwittingly, no preacher would want this) the words of the preacher have come to carry greater weight than the word of God?