I’m still thinking about the text from last Sunday evening. How the Levites moved among the crowds gathered in the square before the Water Gate in Jerusalem as Ezra read from the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament). What were they doing? This is what Nehemiah 8:8 says: “they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
The Hebrew term translated “gave the sense” here in the ESV can be rendered differently, but the ESV has chosen the view (on good grounds) that what the Levites were doing was a) translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic – the language that the Jews had now been using for the best part of a century or more, and b) expounding the meaning of the text, moving from the culture of the text to the culture in which they now found themselves. They were engaged in preaching! And preaching is just that – explain what the text of Scriptures means and applying to our own situation.
Preaching, true preaching, takes place when God’s servants act as God’s spokesmen or sounding boards, letting the Bible do the talking. Of course, one gets the sense that these Levites needed to contextualize what they read accounting for the twin horizons of the original setting of the text and the post-Exilic context in which they now found themselves. As J. I. Packer writes, “all true preaching is biblical interpretation – that is, elucidation and application of ‘God’s Word written’,” adding, “Preaching means speaking God’s own message in his name, that is, as his representative; and this is possible for us, with our sin-twisted minds, only as we labour faithfully to re-echo, re-state, and re-apply God’s once-for-all witness to himself in Holy Scripture. Biblical interpretation means theological exegesis of the text, in relation to the rest of the organism of revealed truth, for the scripturally defined purposes of teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17).” (J. I. Packer, “The Preacher as Theologian,” in When God’s Voice is Heard: Essays on preaching presented to Dick Lucas, Eds. Christopher Green and David Jackman (Leicester, England: IVP, 1995), 85-86.).
On that day in September, 445 B.C. a work of reformation had begun in which a new respect and new love developed in the hearts of the people of God for the Scriptures. What would a new reformation look like? As with the sixteenth century Reformation, a new one would consist in a return to faith expository preaching of the kind described in Nehemiah 8. In Geneva, for example, in the middle-decades of the sixteenth century, John Calvin labored week by week to expound the Scriptures carefully working his way through entire books of the Bible, taking a few verses at a time. We have access to 46 sermons on Thessalonians, 186 on Corinthians, 86 on the Pastoral Epistles, 159 on Job, 353 on Isaiah, 123 on Genesis. On Easter Day, 1538, after preaching, he left the pulpit of St. Peter’s banished by the City authorities. He returned in September 1541, over three years later, and picked up his exposition in the very next verse. Calvin was demonstrating his unwavering commitment to expository preaching! We must be grateful for what remains of expository preaching and encourage it where it does exist. But we long to see a day when every pulpit is committed to a form of preaching that honors the integrity of the written Word of God.
May we see that day come in our lifetime!