And they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:8).
Christianity is designed to be about Jesus the Christ, the means by which a person can become more like Him (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20, 1 John 2:6). Yet our knowledge regarding Jesus comes from the revelations given within the New Testament (John 20:30-31, John 21:24-25, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Our understanding of the context of who Jesus was, why He came, and the story of God’s people before Jesus comes from the revelations contained within the Old Testament (Romans 15:4, Galatians 3:19-25, 2 Peter 1:19-21). Therefore, while our faith must be in Jesus the Christ, we must work diligently to understand the revelations contained in both the Old and New Testaments so that we may know what we believe and be better equipped to accomplish the will of our Lord (2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17, 2 Peter 3:18)!
An important part of our faith, therefore, involves reading the Bible. Yet, as is made evident in the days of Nehemiah, it is not enough just to read the Bible. The message of the Bible must also be understood and applied to the reader’s day!
About a thousand years had passed between Moses’ receiving the Law from God and Ezra’s reading of the Law before the assembled congregation of Israel. In those intervening years Israel had entered the land of Canaan, lived under judges and kings, were exiled from the land, and had returned to it. While we do not know the extent of the differences, there is little doubt that the precise language and terminology of the 1000-year-old law would be somewhat unfamiliar to its “new” audience, just as 500 and 1000 year old books use words and terminology unfamiliar to us.
Therefore, according to the commandment, the Law was read before the people (Deuteronomy 30:10-11). Yet, in order for the people to completely understand what was written, Ezra and his associates gave the sense of the reading (Nehemiah 8:7-8). Unclear words would be explained. Contexts would be clarified. Direct applications might have been provided. Thanks to the hard work of Ezra and his associates, the people were able to walk away with a better understanding of what God commanded than they had before!
We believe that God provided the message of the Bible for people of all generations and nations to understand what He has accomplished in His eternal plan regarding Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Ephesians 3:11). Yet the Bible is a book written between 1900-3500 years ago describing events that happened between 1900 and at least 8000 years ago in languages different from what we speak and in vastly different cultures than our own.
Therefore, the question of the eunuch remains apt: how can I understand what I read, except some one shall guide me? (Acts 8:30-31). In order to understand the Scriptures, we must understand a little bit about the people and places regarding whom and to whom they are written. Some must spend much time learning and studying the original languages to provide meaningful and acceptable translations of the texts, rendering them in the language of people today so that it can be understood. Much can be gained from the diligent study of others who have gained insights regarding the contexts, cultures, languages, and other circumstances that frame the Biblical world.
In all these matters, as before, the text of Scripture must stand above all others. In the end, the Bible reveals the words of God, and the commentaries and studies of men remain uninspired (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Nevertheless, it is a good work to not just read the Scriptures, but to diligently strive to understand the meaning and to apply the message appropriately to the present day. Let us learn more of Jesus Christ and of God’s people in the Scriptures so that we can become better disciples of Christ and citizens of His Kingdom!
Ethan R. Longhenry