The custom of reading Scripture as a part A of the worship of religious services has come down to us through many centuries of church history. In the days of Nehemiah and the return of Israel from Babylonian captivity, a great public service was held amid the ruins of Jerusalem. Ezra, the scribe, "stood upon a pulpit of wood" and "read in the book of the law distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading," and "the ears of the people were attentive unto the book of the law," and 'all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands : and they bowed their heads, and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground." Neh. 8 :1-8.
All public reading of the word should be done "distinctly" so that the people can "understand the reading," and "the ears of the people" should always be "attentive," in an attitude of respect and reverence. When these conditions are met by both the reader and the hearers, a Scripture reading cannot but be productive of great good.
In the fourth chapter of Luke we find a record of the return of Jesus to His home town, Nazareth, where the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him aS He "stood up for to read" in the synagogue. After having read from the prophet Isaiah, He sat down, and "the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened upon Him." (Compare Isa. 61 :I, 2.) Beginning with this text in Isaiah, Jesus preached a sermon in which He applied the prophecy to Himself.
When the Scriptures are read publicly, reverence demands that all eyes be fastened on the reader and nothing be permitted to detract attention from the message of God. In the introduction of the last book of the Bible, which was written especially for the remnant of the church in the last generation, is a divine beatitude that no Christian can afford to miss: "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand." This statement indicates that the prophet intended that the Apocalypse be read publicly to the churches to which it was sent, and bespeaks an attentive attitude on the part of the audience. "Blessed is he who reads aloud" is the Moffatt translation of this clause.
We know that public reading of the apostolic epistles was the custom of the time among the early Christian churches, just as the reading of the law and the prophets had been in the synagogues from time immemorial. Of course, the public reading of the Scriptures was more necessary before the invention and use of printing made the Bible available to the laity as well as to the priest or minister ; but the custom still prevails in many churches, and it can be made an important and impressive part of public worship. Generally a profound hush falls over a congregation during the Scripture reading, which thus constitutes a wonderful preparation for the prayer that follows.
Prayer is communion, or conversation, with God and therefore involves God and man speaking to each other—the Lord speaking through His word, and man answering through prayer. The proper attitude and reverent approach demand that God speak first. It therefore seems fitting that there be a Scripture reading just before the prayer. The voice of prayer is then heard in response to the voice of God.
The Scripture reading should be short, and whenever possible it should be on the subject of the sermon. From three to ten verses are sufficient and need not consume more than one or one and a half minutes. The prayer should be about the same length. The sample public prayer given by Jesus can be prayed slowly in one minute, and our public prayers should never be much longer. Most public prayers are entirely too long and cover too much ground. The divine model indicates that a public prayer should deal only with "this day" and those present. It should not cover the whole world. This is emphasized by instruction in the Spirit of prophecy.
The chief complaint against Scripture readings is that they take too much time, but they seldom consume as much time as the prayer. The average congregation would prefer a brief Scripture reading followed by a short prayer in behalf of their needs, rather than a long, tedious prayer not prefaced by the word of God. When a pastor carefully studies and condenses his sermon and organizes his service, the question of time is not such an important element.
"How readest thou?" A reverent voice, with full, well-rounded tones, in which the word of God is made distinctly clear to the mind and sweetly musical to the ear, will be heard and enjoyed by any congregation that has been educated in Scriptural appreciation and spiritual discernment.
In our larger churches we would do well to have a lectern on which is placed a large pulpit Bible. The lectern is made something like the small desk pulpit—a single upright post with a large base, and a slightly slanting top board to support the Bible. It should be made to match the pulpit and should be about the same height or perhaps a little higher than the pulpit, so that the person reading the Scripture can stand upright. It should be located at one side of the pulpit, about halfway between the pulpit and the end of the rostrum. Before the service begins, the Bible should be opened to the scripture to be read ; and the person chosen to read the scripture and offer prayer should be seated directly behind the lectern so that he can simply step forward at the proper time for his part in the service. This plan, of course, might not be feasible in smaller churches.