Interpreting the Bible

THE layman was reading with "proper" flourish and comment the promise of Isaiah 58, made to those who deal their "bread to the hungry" and to others who "bring the poor that are cast out" to their homes. There was in the chapter a very real pledge of future understanding and personal well-being projected on behalf of the one who would exercise charity toward his neighbor, and here it was beautifully laid out: "Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily.". . .

-Associate Secretary, Sabbath School Department, General Conference at the time this article was written

THE layman was reading with "proper" flourish and comment the promise of Isaiah 58, made to those who deal their "bread to the hungry" and to others who "bring the poor that are cast out" to their homes. There was in the chapter a very real pledge of future understanding and personal well-being projected on behalf of the one who would exercise charity toward his neighbor, and here it was beautifully laid out: "Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily." But the reader had reserved for special emphasis this prize thought: "Thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward." He removed his glasses and his eyes lighted up when he read: "The glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward." "We get one reward, brethren and sisters, at the time of the Lord's coming," he said. "Now the Bible says here that if we help other people along the way we get another one---this is our rereward."

Not every person who reads the Scriptures is careful to look up unfamiliar terms. Many assume that their guess at the pronunciation or the meaning is, if not correct, as good as the next one and close enough to get by. A check with a Bible dictionary or other translations would be time consuming, to say the least. And the speaker might appear a bit of a show-off if he went too deeply into the background of a text or its key phrases. One can only wonder how this layman might have explained Joshua 6:9, which uses the same word: "And the armed men went before the priests . . . , and the rereward came after the ark." Or Joshua 6:13 or Numbers 10:25, which show clearly that the word should have been pronounced rearward.

Study and Practice Essential

It is commonly assumed that anybody can read the Bible, but it is our judgment that few read it correctly. A musician will spend years on the Sonata Appassionato, not merely to get its notes and phrases into his mind, but to bring himself into such sensitive touch with the music that by accent and modulation he may adequately interpret its thought and emotion in sound. But if Isaiah 58 or Isaiah 53 is to be read oh, anybody can do that! and "anybody" does it, picking it up coldly, going through it with an unstudied pro nunciation of words, introducing accents and inflections that misinterpret the meaning, and often trying to make up by the use of pious tones what is lacking in appreciation of the thought and feeling. Yet it is easier to play the Sonata Appassionata as it should be played than to read Isaiah 58 or Isaiah 53 as it should be read.

In the mere matter of accent and inflection, for example, by the use of which the thought of a passage is given vocal form, what study and practice are required lest by a wrong turn of voice a distorted idea will be conveyed, or, by missing the right turn the right idea will be withheld! A Scripture passage is a lighted candle, but many a reader of it, by accent and inflection, puts an effective bushel over it, leaving the listener in profound darkness.

Are All Fools Atheists?

Take the sentence: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." As this sentence is commonly read, it slanders those who are "fools." The usual reader says by his accent and inflection that if there is a fool anywhere about, that fool will say in his heart what the rest of the sentence says. But the sentence does not mean this. It means that if there is any body anywhere about who says in his heart, "There is no God," such a person is a fool. Consequently, in reading the sentence aloud, the reader must say by his voice what the sentence says in words, or be guilty of speaking darkness. If he reads it: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God," he very wrongly "divides" the Word of God. He must read it as though it says, "He is a fool -whoever says in his heart, There is no God," strongly accent ing and coloring the "fool,"---pausing after it, and reading the rest of the sentence pronominally or assumptively.

Which End of the Telescope?

Take "The Lord is my shepherd." We hear it read, "The Lord is my shepherd." But is this the idea? Hardly. The assumption, "shepherd," was already in the author's mind. He felt himself cared for as he cared for his sheep. Who, then, was this shepherd of his? Why, Jehovah. The eye piece of his telescope was "shepherd." Looking through the telescope, he saw "Jehovah" as his shepherd. And so he wrote, "Jehovah is my shepherd," and therefore "I shall not want." The usual vocal rendering reverses the telescope, puts "Jehovah" to the eye, and discerns "shepherd," thus reversing the sentiment, and as Job says, darkening the words.

Or, take "God is our refuge and strength." It is traditionally read, "God is our refuge and strength." But it is at least a query whether the writer did not say, "God is our refuge and strength," my confidence and my present help being derived from the fact that I am defended and em powered by being connected with Omnipotence. If this is the case, and if the psalmist really strengthened himself in God, then the passage should be read so as vocally to say so "God is our refuge and strength." In 1 John 3:3, "Every man that hath this hope in him purineth himself," the accent is usually thrown on "this," or else on "hope," while "in him" is obscured. But such a reading thrusts the lamp far under the bed, and leaves the house dark. For the words "in him" refer to Christ when He shall return to our world, and the hope under discussion is that when He is manifested we shall be like Him. It is therefore a hope in Him, or, as in the American Revised Version, a hope set on Him. Hence the light of the passage does not shine to all that are in the house unless the reader says, "Every one that hath this hope in him purifieth himself."

When the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate that Roman said, "Take ye Him." But they answered, "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death," disclosing their full intentions by their accent. When Jesus was in Simon's house, and Simon thought contempt in his heart that Jesus should accept the attentions of a street woman, loathesome because of "many sins," Jesus said, "Her sins, which are many [just as you were saying in your heart, Simon, they are many, but ] . . ." When Martha said that she believed in the resurrection as a future event, Jesus said, "I am the resurrection." When the disciples knew not "the way," Jesus said, "I am the way." Long dissertations have been focused on the interpretation of the words "way," "truth," "life," whereas the meaning of all three is "I." And if, instead of reading, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," we read, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," we should then have Jesus' meaning and our definitions. Also, if we would read the sentence, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples" with the accent on "my," where it belongs, and not on "disciples," where it does not belong, we should convey vocally in that reading, and not obscure, the effective motive for obeying the new commandment. And if instead of reading, "Art thou the King of the Jews?" as though it were a simple question of information, we should gather up into the "thou" of the sentence all the wonder and amazement and involuntary awe which Pilate suddenly felt when his eyes first fell on the Man ("Art thou the King of the Jews?"), we should thereby convey to the listener the real significance of that question and some sense of the situation in which Pilate stood when he asked it.

Vocal Exegesis

It will be seen from these examples that vocal rendering is vocal exegesis. This being the case, it goes without argument that no one should attempt to read a Biblical passage aloud until he is fairly safe not to misread it, to say the least. Much reading of the Bible is so very poor that happily nobody pays any attention to it or receives the slightest idea from it, so that no harm is done; but "Oh the good we all may do While the days are going by" if we took the opportunity to know how to read it even reasonably well. It is said that a great actress practiced "We fail!" in Macbeth times uncounted. Macbeth says, "If we should fail?" And the answer is, "We fail!" Simplicity itself. But not so fast. What is the answer? Does it merely say that if we fail we fail, and that is all there is to it, or does it express hot and scathing scorn of the very idea of our failing? The actress worked at the problem a long time, and thought it worth her while. But the aver age reader of the Bible in public boldly reels off haphazard or traditional vocalizings of the words of eternal life without even so much as hesitating, let alone stopping to inquire whether his vocal exegesis is right or wrong. Yet it is fully as important to determine whether Jesus said, "I will pray the Father" (and, because it is I who pray, He will forgive you), or, as read traditionally, whether He said, "I will pray the Father," as it is to determine how Lady Macbeth ought to say, "We fail!"

The use of accent and inflection gives the intellectual interpretation, conveys or conceals the thought, of the passage read. In addition, the reader should know how to convey the under-surface significances, the emotions, the spiritual overtones of the passage. To do this is the consummation of art. Handel did it in the Messiah. The aver age reader of the Bible may be pardoned, therefore, if he falls below the standard of full perfection in so high an art. But he may not be pardoned (some awkward questions may be asked him at the judgment seat) if he fails in accent and inflection (for these imply and require only study and intelligence), or if he substitutes unction and a holy tone for mental clearness and a heart on fire. Paul, writing on this subject, said, "I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thou sand words in an unknown tongue."


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-Associate Secretary, Sabbath School Department, General Conference at the time this article was written

March 1969

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