Taking Time to Understand the Word


They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.
(Nehemiah 8:8 NASB)



The walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt and it is time for the people to celebrate and to recommit their lives in service to God. Ezra is called upon to bring out the holy book and to read from it the law of God. Interestingly, while it is written in Hebrew, the people are struggling to understand what it says and it needs to be translated for them. Why is that? Some of them had been living in Babylon and may have spoken that local language for most of their lives. What should have been their native language was now a foreign tongue, one with which they struggled. Also, through the years different words had taken on new meanings and so simply reading from the book they were unable to understand its meaning. It took a holy man of God to place the words from the book into context.



I grew up in Germany where my parents were missionaries. My mother had been raised in a German-Russian community in Canada where they only spoke German at home. She had to learn English when she began attending elementary school. However, her German was not the same German which was spoken in the Germany where I grew up. The German-Russians were colonies of German citizens who had moved to Russia under Catherine the Great. She lived from 1729-1796 and the time of her rule roughly covered the period of time of the American Revolution. She was originally German but married the Russian Emperor, moved to Russia and after his assassination she came to power. She invited groups of Germans to come to Russia and live along the Volga River, southeast of Moscow. While they were provided with land in which to settle, they also were to be a human buffer between the Mongols and the Russian people. These people came from Germany, settled in Russia, and retained their lifestyle, culture and language, always living as Germans in Russia. After a hundred years the contract which Catherine had with the Germans concluded and life began to change. Little by little many began to leave and make their way either back home to Germany or to a new adventure in the Americas. My mother's family was part of the latter -- first coming to Nebraska, making their way to the state of Washington, and then finally settling in Alberta. All the while they brought with them their lifestyle, culture and language. However these people remained isolated from Germany and the developments which had occurred. In some ways it's as if they lived in a time warp, frozen in time from the 1770's.

Fast forward to Germany in the 1960's and my mother wants to try out her German. The young people from the church have come to our home to visit and my mother wants them to sit down and enjoy supper. She looks at one of the young men and thinks she's telling him not to be so "shy" but to have a seat. He gives her a very strange look, but sits down. Later that evening after everyone has left the apartment she goes to the dictionary to look up the word that she has used for "shy." It had always meant "shy" in her understanding of the German language but -- oops, the word has changed meaning and now it means "idiot." My mother had told the young man to not be such an idiot -- but rather to have a seat. No wonder he looked at her and wondered what she was saying!

Even in the last 50-60 years words have taken on new meanings and if we try to explain them with our literal understanding we will make mistakes. Too often people try to do this with the word of God. I have had many a good-meaning friend say that they don't need anyone to tell them what the Bible means because they can believe it literally! Well, can we really? If you are reading an English translation of the word you are reading the best idea that a well-trained translator has of what they understand the original text to be saying. However, you are not looking at a literal word for word translation because if you were -- it would probably not make sense. There must be a scholar who has studied who is able to read the word and help us to put it into context for us, and the reality is that every person who does this will give us their particular slant on the word. Each one of us reads the word with their own preconceived notions, or interpretation of the word. How many times have I had people tell me that they like to go to a non-denominational church where the preacher just preaches the Bible and none of that "theological stuff" that comes from a particular person's perspective. The reality is that you cannot escape the "theological stuff" and just because a pastor doesn't mention their theological perspective doesn't mean that you aren't getting it from them! You are, because we need it!

The Jews could no longer understand the word of God. They needed someone to interpret it for them. Most of us today cannot read the word of God in the original languages, and even if would could read the languages we would not necessarily always understand the context because we are so far removed from it. But this does mean that we have to take time to prayerfully and studiously look at the word of God. We need to allow God to speak to us through the word and form us into his people by what we learn from the word. We have to take time to understand the context in which it is written and then ask God how it applies to us today. What we must be careful about is becoming dogmatic about what we call "literal" interpretations because ultimately we have to realize there is no such thing. A literal interpretation would actually be much easier, but the word of God invites us into a personal relationship with God and the Word! Relationships are very personal and growing things that mold us and shape us. That is God's intent for the word. Therefore it must become a priority in our lives to read the word, but at the same time ask God to use it as a living and breathing instrument to shape us and form us.  We must be willing to go and read and study other sources so that we have a good way of understanding the word.   Only in this way will we be able to fully allow the Word to make a difference in our lives.


Lord, I am so grateful for your word which teaches, changes and transforms me.  Amen.


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