Make the Bible live!

Because ministers are good preachers and good speakers, it is often assumed they are good readers. Not so.' Some of the mistakes we all make in the public reading of the Bible can be avoided.

Gordon Chilvers writes from Norwich, England.

He read Revelation, chapter five, and made each sentence pregnant with new meaning. The Bible became alive." These words describe Dr. Mander's public reading of the Bible at Heath j Street Baptist church. Can this glowing testimony be given of our public Bible reading? Not often. Good public reading of the Bible is as memorable as it is rare. Young ministers-to-be receive detailed instruction in sermon preparation, but little training in public Bible reading. Authors write many books on preaching, and some on public praying, but scarcely one on public reading. Yet to read Scripture aloud effectively is an ability that all preachers need to acquire, for some of the work of explaining its meaning is already accomplished when a passage is read with understanding and skill, conveying the message and mood of the Word to the listener. The ability to do this is innate with few, if any; it must be learned.

Both reader and listener face special difficulties as the Bible is read publicly.

First, public reading is often spoiled by the adoption of a clerical voice. The resultant drone or drawl makes for neither interesting nor fresh reading. Attitude can militate against effective reading when the reader conveys one message in the words and an altogether different one in his attitude.

Second, the difficulty in the words themselves. The Bible contains a number of words that are not familiar to the hearer (and sometimes to the reader) because they are words that do not normally occur in everyday speech and reading. This is particularly true of the King James Version, of course, but applies as well even to modem translations. The King James Version has rightly earned a permanent place in worship services. Its language is dignified and reverent, but its Elizabethan phrases may hamper hearers who are strangers to its style. The Bible also contains theological words that are seldom used outside the pulpit or theological discussion, such as justification, sanctification, and mediation. Some words are used in a different sense today from the sense in which they were used in the seventeenth century of the Authorized Version. Carriages (Acts 21:15), for example, refers to what is carried and not to what carries it. Careful (Luke 10:41) means "anxious," not "exercising caution."

Also, the Bible contains such obsolete words as goodman (Matt. 20:11), meaning the husband or male head of the household; governor (James 3:4), the pilot or steersman of a ship. Sometimes, we shall misunderstand a sentence unless we know the changed meaning of a word. Exodus 13:18 says: "The children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt." Here harnessed means equipped for battle; the Jews did not have to do the work of horses! In Joshua 22:22 the second occurrence of the word he is confusing. Retained, it gives a false sense. (See the Revised Standard Version or another recent translation of the Bible.)

Occasionally, sentence construction pulls up the listener abruptly. In Genesis 43:25, he will hear: "They made ready the present against Joseph came at noon." How strange this sounds to modem ears! It is not a misprint.

Third, the listener's difficulties. Inattentive listening is a common fault today. The flood of words that continually deluges the ears of modern man dulls our hearing perception. So many distracting voices abound that we unconsciously attempt to ignore them. Then, too, a few people attend worship services without expecting to gain any specific benefit. Present because they feel they ought to come, they are "dull of hearing," and become impervious to public reading of the Word.

What steps can we take to overcome these difficulties?

We ourselves must understand a pas sage before we can read it intelligently. Study the passage in depth; read it in the original Hebrew or Greek if possible to help clarify the sense for yourself. Consult various versions to see how they have rendered the passage; this will often give insights into nuances of meaning. Commentaries can help clear away remaining mists; the meaning of unfamiliar words can be learned from a Bible dictionary. Read the passage slowly several times during the week before reading it publicly, to gain a familiarity with it and to give it an opportunity to speak to you before you try to read it in such a way that it will speak to others. Once we understand the passage, we can give sense to what we are saying and help make it intelligible to our hearers by a careful use of such things as inflection of voice, pauses, intonation, accent, and rate of speaking. Here are several examples:

At Christmas, some listeners, especially younger ones, have heard Mat thew 2:13 ("Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt") and have thought the angel told Joseph to take a small insect with him, instead of being commanded to leave his country speedily! A slight pause after the comma will help avoid this misunderstanding.

In most copies of the Bible, no comma is inserted in the first sentence of John 14:24—"He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings." The two nots in one clause will turn the passage into non sense unless you make a slight pause after the phrase "He that loveth me not." At other times a comma may have to be disregarded. Unless you do so after the word saints in Ephesians 4:12, you will distort the sense of the passage, making the text list three purposes for spiritual gifts rather than two. (See the Revised Standard Version.) You could make Jesus a notorious sinner when reading Luke 23:32, however, if you don't observe the comma. "There were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death." Without a perceptible pause before and after the word malefactors, your hearers will receive the implication that Jesus was in the same class as the other two, and thus a criminal.

Knowing how to pronounce the words in a selected passage is essential. It is a good rule to pronounce Old Testament names as if they were English. New Testament names are pronounced according to Greek accents, usually stressing the third syllable from the end: Melita, not Melita. Certainty of pronunciation is necessary, because one can meet strange names in the Bible: Ecclesiastes, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Obadiah, Philemon, Melchizedek, Belteshazzar, Merodach-baladan, Kerenhappuch, Chedorlaomer, and Mahershalal- hashbaz. A complication arises when pronouncing dictionaries and Bibles disagree on pronunciation. Sinai can be pronounced with two or three syllables, although people who have lived in Israel, or know Hebrew, use only two syllables. Here, consistency is the main rule.

Since public reading must be interpretative reading, be careful to communicate the emotion or feeling appropriate to the passage you read. Bible passages may take such literary forms as narrative, declaration, conversation, poetry, and theological argument. The text can be noble, dynamic, exalting, or didactic. Your reading should convey these characteristics. Other Bible passages were written with intense feeling: love or hate, joy or sorrow, words said in anger or in mockery. Some are grave, reverential, less emotional. When you read a passage with the tone of voice appropriate to its mood, a nearly deaf person at the back of the room ought to be able to know what sort of passage was read, even though he heard only a few words. He should know whether it came from Judges, John, or Psalms.

The theatrical approach suggests ostentation, pretense, and vulgarity, and should be avoided, but stilted, feeble reading is little better. A dramatic (riot theatrical) approach will make the reading living and real.

Isaiah 32:2 speaks of "rivers of water in a dry place," "the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." Your hearers ought to be able to sense the dry land, feel the parched throat and burning feet, and know the welcome shade. Read the passage vividly, with the same freshness as if your hearers were listening to it for the first time.

In part, reading dramatically means emphasizing certain words and phrases. Without such emphasis, the passage will be flat and monotonous. But which words are to be emphasized?

A wrong emphasis distorts the meaning of any passage. I once heard a person read: "I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord" (Ps. 122:1). But surely the psalmist was not implying that public worship later became objectionable to him!

No arbitrary rules can be given regarding which words should receive emphasis. Usually a pronoun is not emphasized, but at least once in the Bible it is the most important word in the sentence. After Nathan had heard King David's response to his parable, he said: "Thou art the man" (2 Sam. 12:7). The pronoun certainly is the word to emphasize here.

It is normally unusual to stress the verb to be, since it is not often the most significant part of the sentence. But you will find exceptions: "I am Alpha and Omega, . . . which is, and which was, and which is to come" (Rev. 1:8).

Only a careful study of each passage can reveal which words should be emphasized. Place the stress on the most significant words in a sentence or the words that will best bring out its meaning. When people had differences of opinion on what to call Zacharias' son, "they made signs to his father, how he would have him called" (Luke 1:62). Where words or ideas are contrasted in a sentence, emphasis ought to be placed on the contrasts: "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common" (Acts 10:15). When a name and its meaning are given, stress is placed on the word corresponding to the name: "Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21).

In Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, a pronoun is not written unless it is to be emphasized. This advantage is lacking in English. When a pronoun is inserted in the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament, it advises us to emphasize it. Matthew 5:22 has such a stress: "But I [myself] say unto you ..."

Adequate criticism, properly con ducted, can improve your public Bible reading. Have someone who is capable of listening critically evaluate your public reading and offer worthwhile comments. The preacher who has a professor of speech in his congregation should make good use of his expertise. Sometimes your wife can be your most constructive critic. If you have none of these advantages, a faithful tape recorder can help you to hear how your reading sounds to others.

Reading the Bible aloud effectively requires both study and regular practice. Yet it is such a valued skill that all efforts to succeed are worthwhile. Good reading will reward both reader and listener with a richer, more intelligent understanding and appreciation of God's message. Make the Bible live for you and your congregation!


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Gordon Chilvers writes from Norwich, England.

March 1983

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