Return to Sermon Archive
Standing Under the Bible
January 21, 2001
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
by Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Nehemiah chapter 8 and follow along as I read verses 1-3 and vs 5-6 and vs 8-10. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
1 And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel.
2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.
3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.
5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up:
6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
9 And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.
10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
An elderly woman had just returned to her home from an evening church service when she was startled by an intruder. As she caught the man in the act of robbing her home of its valuables, she yelled, "Stop! Acts 2:38!" (Repent, and be baptized... in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.). The burglar stopped in his tracks. The woman calmly called the police and explained what she had done. As the officer cuffed the man to take him in, he asked the burglar, "Why did you just stand there? All the old lady did was yell a Scripture to you." "Scripture?" replied the frightened burglar, "She said she had an axe and two 38s!" Let us talk about Scripture today, and the value of Scripture. Scripture you might say is just words on paper. Yes, it is, but words matter.
Language is important, important enough to die for. Recent language riots in Algeria resulted in the deaths of four Berbers protesting the government's decision to make Arabic the official language of Algeria, The Berbers interpreted this as a slap at their tongue, Tamazight.
In Pakistan, riots throughout the last half of the century resulted in the deaths of people protesting Urdu as the official language in a country where Urdu competes with Bengali, Sindhi, Punjabi and others. In India, language is a sensitive issue. In the 1965 riots, people died over the issue in Madras, and 30,000 teachers lost their jobs. Even in our own country, we have a long tradition of language battles. Ben Franklin himself was a player in the dispute with the Pennsylvania Germans in the 1750s. Perhaps you heard about that. There was a movment in colonial Pennsylvania and upstate New York to make German the official language of the american colonys. Imagine how that would have changed history had it succeeded. And today, the strife continues. One needs only to mention California, Hawaii, Oakland (Ebonics), Miami, Puerto Rico to recall language wars which pit English-only advocates against the speakers of indigenous or immigrant languages.
Now Microsoft hascome to the rescue. The Seattle-based company has been working on software programs for Turkish, Cyrillic, Arabic, Thai, Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Konkani and Sanskrit.
Now they are developing software to help defuse language tensions in Greece: software for ancient polytonic Greek. Polytonic Greek is an alphabet that dates from the age of Plato, around 500 b.c. The challenge of polytonic Greek is that it has six accent marks, a much more complicated form of writing than modern monotonic Greek, which has just one accent mark. But despite the fact that it has not been spoken as a language for centuries, people are passionate about Plato's Greek. Proponents of polytonic Greek have squared off with monotonic modernists for years, with writers being hauled into court for not using the proper forms. Worse: people have died in riots incited by the language. So, wanting to avoid violence and glide gracefully into Greek culture, Microsoft saw that it would be politically correct to offer polytonic software to the people, and bring Plato's language into the digital age.
Microsoft is not going to make money on software using ancient Greek, but Greeks love it - especially the Greek Orthodox Church. "Ancient Greek," said one devotee, "is like your grandmother. You don't see her every day but you love her to death."
Unfortunately, many people feel the same way about Scripture. Our affection for the Bible is like a Greek's passion for Plato: We love it and leave it. We love the Bible, but we do not read the Bible. Or we do not read it very often. We all have at least one copy of the Bible. We keep it handy right there on the coffee table, even though it is a little dusty.
It was precisely this realization that overwhelmed the people of post-exilic Jerusalem. Nehemiah tells the story of a time when God's law had been missing in action. A remnant of the people of Judah had just returned from exile in Babylon, and their governor Nehemiah - a good and faithful man - led them in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and instituting social and religious reforms.
In chapter 8, Ezra, the scribe, cracks open the ancient book of the law of Moses and begins to read it to the gathered people.
It is emphasized throughout this passage that ALL of the community was present at the assembly. In the OT, women are not usually mentioned as part of a crowd unless the exact number of persons in the crowd is significant. Because Hebrew has both a masculine and a feminine plural form, when talking about a crowd of mixed gender the masculine form is always used. This often obscures the fact that women are present. Here, however, the author twice makes a special point that women were present, as well as "those who could understand"--which appears to be a reference to children who had reached what is sometimes called the "age of reason,"--which I suppose is around seven years old.
It is also stated twice that the Torah was not simply read aloud. Priests were stationed throughout the crowd to interpret for any who did not understand. You see at this point in their history most Jews no longer spoke Hebrew. They spoke Aramaic, which is akin to Hebrew but quite different. Before the book is read the people bow and worship the LORD. After they understand what the book means, they begin to weep. Ezra and Nehemiah, at this point, have to reassure them that what they have on that day is a new beginning. They don't have to weep for their past failures. They can begin right then to observe the law they now understand. They are to dry their eyes and prepare to feast, including in their preparation those poor for whom nothing has been prepared. In this way, even their first official celebration of their new covenant with the LORD can be conducted in light of the law that commands charity for the poor
Unlike these sixth century B.C Jews, we do not have a problem with access to the Scriptures in our own language. What is remarkable about this passage is the power of the Word of God to penetrate the human spirit, to speak to the heart, to touch the deepest corners of the soul.
Unfortunately, we sometimes get sidetracked and miss this power because we major in minors. We become passionate, even fanatical, about the translations we prefer. Some of God's children will never forsake the Elizabethan English of the King James Version. They'll fly into an argument like partisans of Plato's Greek to defend the KJV. Or, it they are Catholic perhaps they prefer the Douay-Rheims version. Or, if they are conservative protestants they will defend the NIV.
Or, it may be that they do not have a translation they love, but they have a translation they love to hate. The TEV, (todays English Version (sometimes called Good News for Modern Man) the RSV, Revised Standard Version and the NRSV, New Revised Standard Version, are frequently the target of such attacks. I remember that when Good News for Modern Man came out a preacher over in Greenville gathered up a bunch of copies and burned them. He burned the Word of God because it was in language he did not like. He should have had his head examined.
On a lighter note, it may be that there are those Star Trek fans who prefer the KAV (Klingon Authorized Version). For those of you who may have forgotten, klingons were the arch-enemies of Captain Kirk in the old Star Trek series. Lest you think that I am joking, I assure you that there is a Klingon language project, and that portions of the Bible have been translated into Klingon. A similar project exists for Shakespeare because, as Chancellor Gorkon says in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991): "You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon." Linguist Glen Proechel, a former theology student, has even worked on a bilingual Klingon-English worship service.
In Nehemiah 8 part of the problem was that the people no longer understood the language that the Bible was written in. That is not our problem. Our problem today is not access, but faithfulness. To "understand" the Bible means, quite literally, to "stand under" the Bible - to place ourselves under its authority, to take it personally, to allow our lives to be shaped by it and to give it our trust and our confidence.
When we seek to understand the Bible, we are doing more than making a reasonable effort to understand what the words mean. Instead, we are "standing under" Scripture's view of God and humanity and sacred history, and giving it not only the insight of our brains, but also the allegiance of our hearts. This is why all the people of Judah wept when they heard the words of the law, and then went their way to eat and drink and to make great rejoicing. They wept and rejoiced, in heart and mind, "because they had understood the words that were declared to them" (8:12), and they had decided that they would "stand under" those words.
It sometimes seems to me that Christians, particularly Southern Christians, are almost hypociritical about the Bible. We will stand up for the Bible. We will march for the Bible. We wll fight for the bible. If someone says something against the Bible, we will say, put them up, we will go at it. We will defend the Bible, yet every survey and every study that has ever been done says that most Christians do not know much about the Bible. In one study that was done with Christians, about half the people involved did not know what the first book of the Bible is. About half did not know who first preached the Sermon on the Mount. A good many thought that Billy Graham did--which must be acutely embarassing for Dr. Graham. 80% of these Christians, and we are talking born again evangelical Christians, thought that the statement "God takes care of those who take care of themselves" is in the Bible. It is not. Benjamin Franklin said that.
Here is the point. It is all well and good to join the battle of biblical inerrancy and infallibility, but it does not matter one jot or tittle if we don't read the Bible!
So what's the problem? Why don't we read the Bible? We're not talking Plato's Greek here. There's no polytonic problem. No accent aggravation. Every one of us can pick up a good English translation and read God's Word for ourselves. And we can decide not only to read the word, but to stand under this word, to accept this word as the authority for our lives.
Actually in this technological age, we have more access to the scriptures than anyone has ever had before. You can listen to the Bible on tape or CD. I have a dramatized Bible on tape that includes many voices and background effects. I like listening to it as I drive. You may have a favorite Bible reader. Some prefer Moses (Charlton Heston). My choice might surprise you. I prefer Johnny Cash. When The Man in Black reads the Scripture for you, his road-weary whiskey growl rolling through thee's and thou's like thunder over the prairie, that is impressive. And we can get Scripture software today that will put the Bible on our computer. I have a couple of versions that put whole Bibles on your PC so that you can access any verse. It is great for writing sermons. You can look up a verse, and copy it into your sermon. You do not have to hunt for verses in the Bible. If you can remember any phrase from the verse, the software will look up the verse for you and print it right out, and you can cut and paste it right into your sermon. You can find the same thing on the Internet. There are all kinds of Bibles on the Internet. You can access them, look up whatever verses you want, copy them and paste them wherever you want. Or picture this: You are in a business meeting. Suddenly your pager starts beeping. You check the message on the screen and you say, "I am sorry, but I have to take this. This is from the top." Yes, you can be paged by God. For $5 per month, Pure Vision Ministries will send twenty Bible verses to your pager anywhere in the United States. The idea is that this gives people not only the opportunity to learn the Bible but to share verses with others. I suppose that it could be shocking to be giving a business talk about how great a job you have been doing, then have a pager beep, and read the verse, "Be still and know that I am God."
So here is the point: We have all kinds of access to God's Word. What we need to do is to take advantage of the access we have to actually discover what is in the Bible. And when we do that, there is a good chance we will experience what the Israelites in ancient Jerusalem did, as they stood attentively at the Water Gate. They not only got a portion of daily water for their bodies, they got living water for their souls.
And when they did, Nehemiah tells us they went away "to celebrate with great joy" (NIV).
It's only the third week in January. I have a challenge for you for the remainder of this year. Read the Bible through this year. That is not asking a lot. Read five or six chapters a day. That will do it. Read the Bible not as a grim duty. Read the Bible not as a collection of books written for a people long ago and far away. As you read the Bible, stand under the Bible. Let its word speak to your life and guide your life. As you begin to read, you may weep, as the Jews did in Nehemiah 8, realizing how far you have been from God's word. This is perhaps the first reaction when we begin to stand under the word. We know that we have not kept the Word. But the scripture itself reassures us with words of forgiveness and love. As we stand under the Word, we understand that it is good news not only for modern man but for all people of all times. You have heard that word in John 3:16, and in many other places in Scripture. God loved us so much that he gave his only -begotten son that whosoever believes will not perish. That is the word we stand under. That is God's good news. Amen.
Delaney, Kevin J. "Plato's Greek Is Legible
at Last on Modern PCs." The Wall Street
Journal, February 22, 2000, B1.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 01/19/01