How do you respond to the word of God? Most of us have the privilege of being able to read the Bible in our own language, probably in several versions. Bibles, though not cheap, are affordable to most people. We can even access them on the internet. We can do this without fear of reprisal unlike many around the world. But do we really respond to the Word as we ought. In the passage from Nehemiah which is the focus for this year’s Bible Sunday, the Jews wanted to listen to God’s law, to his guidance for living a full life. Once they had heard it read and interpreted, their reaction was inspiring.
The readings at the Sunday noon service in the Cathedral on Epiphany Island were Psalm 119:9-16, Nehemiah 8:1-12, Matthew 24:30-35. My reflection follows:
This year has also been a celebration of the 400th birthday of the Authorised, or King James, version of the Bible. Much has been said about the impact that translation has had on people over the years. It’s been used to teach people to read; it has brought sayings into the English language which are used without people necessarily being aware of their source; it has been hailed as great literature. It is certainly a translation which taught me many of the verses of scripture which I know by heart.
I do think, however, there is a risk in the adulation of one particular translation. It was a phenomenal achievement, no one can deny that. Its forerunner, the Tyndale Bible, cost its translator his life though many of his words live on in the AV. But, to say that it is the definitive Bible in English is probably going too far. I’ve had conversations with people who are convinced that the AV is the only true Bible, as though God dictated his words in Elizabethan English and in no other language. That being the case, no one should use any other translation, of course! I would say it’s the content, not the precise translation, that matters.
InEnglandandWalesit’s Bible Sunday today. The work of Bible Society, which promotes Bible Sunday, is the translation and distribution of the Bible and the encouraging of engagement with the Bible by ordinary people. The passage of scripture focused on today is Nehemiah 8:1-12 and it concerns translation and the engagement of ordinary people with the Bible, showing the impact it can have.
The book of Nehemiah is one of the history books in the Old Testament. The people ofJudahhad been in exile inBabylonfor 70 years. They were then given permission to return home in the time of King Cyrus and some went back led by Zerubbabel. Over a twenty year period they rebuilt theTempleinJerusalemand built or repaired houses for themselves. TheTemplewas completed in 520 B.C. The book of Nehemiah is set in the period from 444 B.C. onwards.
Despite the progress the people had made, Nehemiah heard that the walls ofJerusalemhad not been rebuilt, meaning that the people lived vulnerable lives. Walls gave a city safety if enemies attempted to attack it. They were a symbol of strength and peace. Nehemiah was distressed thatJerusalem, God’s chosen city, was not secure. He gained permission from King Artaxerxes to leave his very responsible job as the cupbearer of the king and return toJerusalem. He took letters of authority with him from the king allowing him to be governor, and began his work of moving the Jews into a situation of better organisation and leadership.
The early part of the book gives extensive lists of the groups of people who built each section of wall and repaired each gate. Levites, mayors, goldsmiths,Templeattendants, those who lived insideJerusalemand those who lived outside, all helped to build sections of wall. Despite being mocked and threatened by Sanballat, governor ofSamaria, they carried on with their work. In order to protect the workers from attack, half the people worked and half patrolled with swords.
Nehemiah also had to deal with corruption in society where children were being sold into slavery and there were those who were charging interest on loans. He arranged for the priesthood to be re-established and appointed temple officials. He encouraged the people to settle the rest of the land, in the towns and villages of the area. The walls were completed in just 52 days, faster than expected.
It might be thought that Nehemiah had given the people everything they needed and they would be content. However, at the beginning of the reading for today we’re told that the people wanted Ezra, a priest and scribe (so an expert on the Law) to read the Law to them. Nehemiah had used the Law to guide him in leading the people forward. It seems they realized that they needed more than material security; they needed to be reconnected with God and his ways. It was their allegiance to God and the distinctive lifestyle he commanded which had held the tribes ofIsraeltogether and given them an identity long before they had a capital city, a king or aTemple. The Law was not just a set of rules, but instruction to help life to be lived to the full.
There in the square everyone gathered, men and women and children together. It’s likely that people would normally have been segregated for worship but on this occasion they were all together, all listening to the same word as read by Ezra. Far from being bored at the thought of listening to a very long reading (we’re told it lasted from early morning to midday), the crowd was enthused by this occasion. As Ezra opened the scroll everyone stood up, as a sign of respect – something some of us have learnt to do in our own traditions when the gospel is read. Ezra made certain the attention of the people was on the Lord, the giver of the Law, and not on himself. He praised God and the people roared their approval: Amen! Amen! They lifted their hands towards heaven in praise of God. You can almost sense what it would have been like to be in that crowd. That wasn’t all; they recognised that they were in the presence of God and bowed to the ground to worship him. What a fantastic response to the word of God! Perhaps we take the Bible too much for granted and fail to be awed by what we have access to when we open the Bible and read.
During the time inBabylonthe people had adopted the Aramaic language and abandoned Hebrew. They may still have understood Hebrew but perhaps not well enough. It might have been rather like listening to the Authorised Version of the Bible is for us. We recognise the words, we may enjoy the rhythm of them, but the old fashioned nature of the language can act as a barrier to understanding. It seems there were still those Levites who knew the language well. They mingled with the people, giving them understanding as Ezra read.
Finally we are shown the impact the reading and interpretation of the Law had on the people. They cried. What were they crying for? Probably because they realized that they were not living as the Law said they should. They were feeling remorseful about how far they had drifted from God’s ways. It still happens now, of course. People realize, suddenly or gradually, that they have spent a portion of their life not living as they should have done. They can be overwhelmed with regret at the time and opportunities that have been lost.
It’s true that we can’t capture lost time but Ezra, Nehemiah and the Levites had good advice for the people. They were told to rejoice, to go and have a party because the day was so special. Had they wallowed in their regrets, they would have wasted more time. Ezra urged them to draw strength from the joy of the Lord, strength to live differently. And they were to start right away by giving food to those who had nothing prepared, thus immediately showing God’s concern for the poor and marginalised which runs throughout the Law.
Though two and a half thousand years separate us from the people of Nehemiah’s day, we can still learn from their experience. Let us never take for granted the privilege we have of being able to read God’s word whenever we want, in a language we understand, without fear of persecution. Let’s not be paralysed by regrets about things that might have been, but move forward into a new future. If we allow it, the Bible will inspire celebration and worship and transform our lives. It’s a very powerful book indeed!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor